Today, November 30, 2010, I spoke with the Fire Marshall to find out that the below fire alarm issue has been re-negotiated.
It will apply to apartment buildings with interior corridors with 17 or more apartments and to apartment buildings with 4 or more floors. This would then necessitate the retro fit for alarms hooked up and wired to the Houston Fire Department.
Additionally, effective end of 2011, each apartments in the city, regardless of building size, must AT LEAST have a battery powered smoke alarm in each bedroom.
For more questions, you may phone Main office fire marshall 713 865 7100
Fire Alarm Issue Update – As of April 30, 2010
The Houston Fire Department has begun to enforce a provision of the Fire Code which requires apartment buildings with more than 16 units or more than 3 stories to be retrofitted with fire alarms.
HAA hosted a roundtable discussion yesterday with several fire alarm companies, construction companies, property owners, representatives of the Houston Fire Department and Code Enforcement. Our objective was to try to better understand our options, the requirements and costs of each, and how the requirement will be phased in and enforced.
HAA has an agreement-in-principle with the Houston Fire Department to amend the new Fire Code to include a fixed phase-in period for the fire alarm requirement as follows:
1. Properties with one to three buildings (<55 units) that need retrofit must have alarms installed within a year
2. Properties with four to ten buildings (55 – 180 units) that need retrofit must have alarms installed within 3 years
3. Properties with more than ten buildings (>180 units) that need retrofit must have alarms installed within 5 years.
Note on unit count: To address the problem of large buildings, the unit counts in parentheses mean, for example, that if you had 60 units in buildings requiring retrofit, you would get 3 years even if all the units were in one, two or three buildings.
Note on time period: The “clock” will start with adoption of the new fire code – probably sometime in June or July. For properties already visited by fire officials and given 90 days to present a plan, fire officials intend to observe the new phase-in even before it is officially adopted by City Council.
Options for Compliance
HAA sees three realistic options for owners with buildings containing 17 or more units:
1. Installation of Fire Alarms
2. Installation of 2-hour fire walls
3. Condo conversion
Another option would be the installation of a fire sprinkler system in lieu of alarms. Another long shot: landings and stairs serving upstairs units could be reconfigured so that each upstairs unit has its own stairway, which would also eliminate the need for alarms.
As HAA understands it, the following system components are required
A panel for the alarm system, which controls the system and monitoring.
On properties with multiple buildings, multiple panels may be necessary if driveways and such preclude tying all buildings into a single panel.
If possible, alarms in all buildings can be tied into a single panel.
- Pull stations within 5 feet of the entrances to stairways above the ground floor. Ground-floor pull stations within 200 feet of horizontal travel distance of any ground-floor unit door.
- Audible devices (horns) that provide a decibel level between 70 and 120 in each bedroom.
- These may be installed outside if you can reach the required decibel range in each bedroom.
Fire inspectors have found that hitting the required decibel range with outdoor horns in new properties is unlikely, but many attendees felt that this option will work in older properties that are not as well insulated. Before making the choice, it’s important to have alarm companies test, using battery-operated horns and decibel meters in unit bedrooms, to see if outdoor horns are feasible for your property.
These do not need to be connected to any sort of strobe inside or outside.
The alarm system must be monitored, which requires a permit from the city and an annual inspection, which is performed by your fire alarm company. The annual inspection will involve running the alarm for 20+ minutes to check the decibel levels in each bedroom. Monitoring requires a dedicated phone line and a backup phone line. The backup phone line may be a shared line.
This requirement has nothing to do with smoke detectors. The systems are not interconnected.
If each upstairs unit is served by its own stairway (not shared), alarms are not necessary.
Bids received by members show wide variations in cost for fire alarm systems. Some bids seem to propose equipment that is not required by the fire department. Other variations in cost are driven by whether or not all alarms can be tied into a single panel – or just a few panels, how many pull stations are required, and whether the required decibel range can be achieved with outside horns or if wires must be run through walls to horns placed inside each unit.
A “building” can be turned into more than one “building” for the purposes of this requirement with the construction of a two-hour rated fire wall – dividing, for example, a 32-unit building into two 16-unit buildings and eliminating the need for alarms. A fire wall divides the building from the slab to the roof – possibly several inches above the roof in some cases. Opinions on the feasibility of this option varied widely among knowledgeable people at our roundtable yesterday, some feeling the expense would be far more than the installation of a fire alarm system, others disagreeing. All agreed that feasibility would depend on the unique characteristics of each property.
A 2-hour fire wall is basically two layers of 5/8” sheetrock, but it must run slab to roof, meaning floors would have to be “broken,” requiring engineering expertise. Penetrations through fire walls are allowed in an “approved manner,” which is generally going to involve rated “sleeves” around pipes, wires and ducts. The possible advantage of doing this at breezeway locations was discussed at some length, although – again – opinions varied on the feasibility.
If costs are comparable, some attendees felt a firewall would be the better option because it would avoid the ongoing monthly expense of the phone lines and monitoring, the expense and resident dislike of the annual test, and the possibility of false alarm activations.
There was also speculation that some of Houston’s larger, older apartment buildings may already have firewalls of which current owners are unaware. Owners should examine original plans or have a qualified person check if there’s any doubt.
This option was not discussed yesterday, but the Fire Code applies the alarm retrofit requirement to “apartment buildings.” Fire officials have confirmed that condominium properties are not subject to this requirement. A condo conversion is a purely paper event, with an owner possessing separately-deeded units instead of a single property. Possible disadvantages:
The owner would receive an individual property tax bill for each unit each year. Protesting values would be a hassle.
Lenders may be uncomfortable with such a change.
Wholesale condo conversion to avoid fire alarm retrofit could create a political scenario that would encourage city officials to revisit condos being exempt from the requirement.
When you seek to comply with this ordinance please consider using an HAA member fire alarm company (type in “Fire Alarm Systems” in the search category).
HAA will continue to share more information about this issue as it develops. If you would like any information on any of HAA’s legislative activities, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Update Sept 29,
Multifamily owners might wish to postpone action on fire alarms.
I spoke with Fire Marshall, who said that there may be changes to this legislation because the city is in further negotiations with the Houston Apartment Assn. to make changes.