City continues smoke detector debate
Questions of safety, cost and Indiana code interpretation still headline the debate on a current City of Bloomington proposal to effectively ban battery-operated smoke detectors in rental units.
The proposed ordinance is just a small fraction of the much larger Property Maintenance Code. The proposed ordinance is also the part that seems to be garnering the most attention, particularly with a certain sector of the business community — property owners.
Many property owners believe the city is overstepping its authority by mandating the installation of hardwired, interconnected smoke detectors, which are directly connected to the building’s electrical system. The city believes it is following state laws by mandating such an ordinance.
These two requirements would increase safety in rental units, the city argues, saving property and lives. The city realizes the proposal won’t end the problem, Assistant City Attorney Patty Mulvihill said.
“We’re not expecting perfection,” Mulvihill said. “The city does not agree that this is the magic bullet. It’s not going to prevent every fire or save every life.”
Rental owners, including Nikki Johnson, CFC Properties vice president of residential real estate, are questioning whether hardwired smoke detectors really are the safest option.
Johnson said after doing some research, she’s not sure hardwiring is necessarily the best option for powering smoke detectors in terms of safety. She also suggested the city look into the benefits of photoelectric and ionization, two different technology types in detectors.
“I just want to make sure they have done their due diligence and done their research,” she said.
Mulvihill said the city has found conflicting reports on the benefits of photoelectric versus ionization detectors, but that hardwired units are definitely harder to disable and thus are more effective.
John Drengenberg, electrical engineer and consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratory, said UL has no official preference when it comes to battery-operated versus hardwired units or photoelectric versus ionization technologies.
“Both do work,” Drengenberg said. “They meet the standards. They give you adequate warning to evacuate the house. I can’t take sides there.
“The advantage of the hardwired, though, is that you don’t have to give it as much attention as you would with a battery type.”
He also said these types of alarms are also more difficult than battery-operated units to disable.
Drengenberg said ionization alarms might sound quicker in instances of flaming fires, whereas photoelectric units notify quicker in cases of smoldering fire.
“Knowing that one type works a little faster, the recommendation is really twofold,” he said.
Drengenberg said the best way to stay safe is to install one of each type of alarm or to install dual alarms.
He agreed that interconnected detectors, which the city is proposing, are a good idea. Mulvihill also said the interconnected units could reduce evacuation time.
“The reason you want interconnection is you want early detection,” she said. “The key is early notification. The sooner you are notified, the sooner you can get out.”
Another concern is money, but that’s just a side issue, Johnson said.
“From CFC’s perspective, if we believe it’s truly making things safer and if the city has followed the proper procedure to putting an ordinance in place, we’ll absolutely do what we have to do.”
At this point, Johnson and other property owners supported by the Indiana Apartment Association have attended the city’s public feedback sessions. The final session before the proposed code goes to the Bloomington City Council is at 4 p.m. Oct. 2 in the Council Chambers in City Hall.
Mulvihill said the city understands that this ordinance will cost the property owners, but that in the interest of safety, it is worth it.
“The city’s administration is very cognizant and respectful of the fact we’re asking property owners to expend more money than they normally do,” she said. “But the city administration’s job is not just to weigh expenditures of business owners, it’s also to weigh the health and safety of community members. That cost is worth possibly saving lives and property.”
CFC alone will have to retrofit 452 of its 640 Bloomington apartments at a cost of about $218,000.
Johnson took offense at the idea that rental property owners don’t care about student safety, only expenses.
“And there is a cost factor,” she said. “I know it comes across as the owners not being sympathetic to safety, but that is simply not the case. There is no owner that wants a fire in the building or someone to be hurt in a fire, but cost is a factor.”
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