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Burglar Bars Can Turn Homes Into Deathtraps

Times Staff Writer

What happened on the edge of Watts last month happens once or twice a year in Los Angeles, just often enough to be numbing and just infrequently enough to escape public concern.

Fire raged inside a remodeled home on East 113th Street. Three children were trapped in a bedroom by heavy wrought-iron “burglar bars” bolted to the window to keep intruders out.

Under city and county building regulations, it is illegal to put such bars on “sleeping room” windows unless they are accompanied by an emergency “quick-release” mechanism. The release device, which costs about $50, forces the bars to swing open when a lever or foot pedal is activated from the inside.

The children’s bedroom bars had no such device. Their only hope for rescue was that neighbors on the outside might yank hard enough to rip away the bars. They could not. By the time firefighters extinguished the blaze, the youngsters--ages 1, 2 and 3--were dead.

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To specialists in fire prevention and building safety, the incident was a tragic example of how an alarming number of homes and apartment units in high-crime areas have been turned into potential deathtraps by owners who worry more about burglars than fires and ignore the quick-release requirements.

In Los Angeles alone, there may be as many as 50,000 such dwellings.

That estimate is part of the city’s attempt to enforce a 1985 ordinance that requires quick-release devices regardless of when the bars were installed.

It is an effort that will, at best, take years of full-time inspection and prodding and, at worst, may fail to ever catch up with a myriad of installers who flout the law.

At least 100,000 homes or apartments in the city have burglar bars and about half of those were installed without the release mechanisms, said Bob Barton, the city building inspector in charge of the enforcement effort, which began in April.

The same ratio of non-compliance probably holds true for unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, according to a county Fire Department building codes expert.

So far, there has been little to stop an installer or customer from violating the quick-release requirement.

Because of manpower shortages, neither the city nor county sent out building inspectors to enforce their codes. That encouraged many smaller, less ethical companies to feel that they could omit the release device to cut prices, according to government officials and industry leaders.

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And even when quick-release levers are installed, safety concerns can arise, according to fire protection specialists.

In a significant number of these dwellings, the devices may no longer work properly due to neglect, officials said. Or the mechanism may be an older style that requires a key--often hard to find amid the smoke of a fire--and is no longer permitted by the city.

Additionally, some fire experts believe that even when a home has bars with a well-functioning quick-release system, the panic and disorientation of a house fire can create chaos that prevents escape.

“I hate these things,” said Gene Wolfe, a Los Angeles County fire captain in charge of codes and ordinances. “I wouldn’t allow them at all. The first thing we think of when we arrive at a family dwelling is rescue--is anybody inside we can help? When they wrap these things around the house, it makes it difficult to get inside,” he said.

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“If a family trains for a proper escape, and the safety releases are working, window bars add to a home’s security,” said Sgt. Dan Pugel, who runs the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime prevention unit. “But if window bars are put on without any training and an escape practice program, they’re very dangerous. They become a deathtrap.”

In high-crime communities, particularly South Los Angeles, the bars have become an unflattering architectural staple. There are many well-manicured blocks of homes in Watts, for example, where at least half of the residences are heavily barred, an investment that can cost more than $1,000. New homes, condominiums and motels are routinely built with barred windows on the first floor.

Because of the lack of government oversight, no one knows precisely how many homes have window bars or proper escape equipment.

Nor is it clear how many deaths can be blamed on the bars.

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In a 1984 study that led to the 1985 city ordinance, the Fire Department said six people died between 1980 and 1984 in home fires because they were unable to escape from bedrooms equipped with bars that did not open.

Other jurisdictions do not normally keep such statistics. County fire official Wolfe said he is sure that there had been far fewer incidents in his agency’s territory, but only because “we’ve just been incredibly lucky.”

One tragic incident occurred in Pomona on April 29 when a mother and three children died inside a burning rented home whose windows were illegally barred. The mother was found dead on the floor in what firefighters thought was an effort to reach a hallway.

Hidden Danger

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Pomona Fire Capt. Bruce Lacey said rental property owners often neglect quick-release devices and tenants tend to be less aware of the danger than residents who purchase the bars themselves.

The subtle, unpredictable consequences of legal bars were illustrated by last month’s fire on 113th Street and another blaze that occurred nearby not long afterward.

According to firefighters, the grandparents of the three children who perished in the 113th Street blaze could have escaped with minimal effort because their bedroom was equipped with a quick-release device.

But in the confusion of the moment, the grandparents forgot about the latch, officials said. They waited helplessly in their own bedroom until neighbors tore off the bars, freeing them. (Bars attached to a quick-release device are easier to tear off in such an emergency than bars bolted to a window.)

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Two weeks later, two blocks away, panic overpowered technology again.

Bars Block Escape

In a house on East 111th Street, seven children were backed into a bedroom by flames and smoke billowing toward them from the kitchen. Burglar bars blocked their escape.

The children punched the glass out of the windows for air. But they forgot that the bars could be flipped open with a quick-release device--a device that their mother said she had taught her children to use.

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Only the heroics of a neighborhood visitor, who with a friend hurriedly pried the bedroom bars off the window, allowed the youngsters to escape.

Leon Watkins, a South Los Angeles resident and an official of a county agency that tries to quell street gang violence, said such incidents have discouraged him from putting bars on his own windows despite his awareness of neighborhood crime.

‘I’ll Take My Chances’

“I’ve got kids and there’s no way I would feel comfortable,” said Watkins, who has put bars on the doors of his home. “In a fire, folks panic. They haven’t been in that smoke. You’re not thinking about anything but getting out. I’m not going to take that chance. I’ll take my chances with them (burglars) coming through the windows.”

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However, far more residents have gone the other way, often with considerable reluctance.

“I didn’t want to put them on,” said Annie Kemp, who added bars to her home two years ago after her sons moved away.

“The bars remind me of being in prison in my own house. But sometimes you do things you don’t like in the interest of security,” Kemp said.

“It may not stop ‘em,” added Dan Hamilton, who installed bars and a heavier front door three years ago after a burglar broke into his home on East 110th Street, “but it slows ‘em down.”

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Variety of Factors

Installers and safety officials believe that several psychological, economic and regulatory factors have contributed to the large number of unsafe burglar bar units. They include:

- Fear: “Eight of 10 people call us after they’ve been robbed. Those people are only concerned about security,” said Jeff Marks, president of Himco Security Products, one of the city’s largest burglar bar installation companies.

Added a salesman for another company: “They don’t even mention fire. They want to sleep. They’d rather put up with a fire here and there than somebody shooting them.”

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Residents also tend to have the bars installed after a next-door neighbor is burglarized, or during a highly publicized crime spree.

“During the Night Stalker murders (in which the suspect often entered homes through open or unlocked windows), there was a tremendous increase,” said Bob Marino, a former Los Angeles police officer who now owns AAA Security Systems. “A lot of people ran scared.”

Customers Frightened

Salesmen say the more frightened the customer is, the less likely he is to carefully scrutinize the effectiveness of a burglar bar’s release mechanism--or to worry about it at all.

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“There are a lot of ignorant people out there,” said Mike Bernardi, owner of Culver Iron Works. “They don’t care how safe the bars they’re buying are. Somebody will give them something cheaper, that’s all they care about.”

- Tough competition: A decade ago, about 80 companies advertised under the “ornamental iron” section of the Central Los Angeles Yellow Pages. Today there are about 180, many of them unlicensed contractors who either are unaware of quick-release requirements or ignore them, according to complaints by numerous businessmen.

“It’s a big problem,” said Red Sojka, owner of Red’s Iron Specialties and former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Assn. “There are more guys doing it illegally than legally.”

‘Killing the Industry’

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Added Bernardi: “It is killing the industry. . . . Anybody who owns a little $100 welding machine and a pair of pliers can do it out of their garage.”

Sojka said that because of undercutting by small unlicensed companies, he has cut back on burglar bar installation, relying on contracts for larger jobs such as fences.

Marks said his firm averages 30 ornamental iron installations a day and competes by flooding target neighborhoods with advertising fliers.

- Weak regulation: Although many crime-weary homeowners put bars on their windows in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Los Angeles city building codes did not deal with the bars until 1976. Then, after several residents died when caught behind their bars during fires, the city banned further installations unless the quick-release devices were included in bedrooms.

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However, the idea of prosecuting property owners for violating the new law was considered impractical. Few homeowners were obtaining the required city building permit for bar installation, so there was little data on file. As a result, there was often no way to tell whether bars had been installed before the law took effect (making them exempt) or later. And the expense of sending inspectors into the field was prohibitive.

Supervisors Act

The same year the city acted, the County Board of Supervisors passed the county’s first regulation of burglar bars, but toughened it by making the quick-release requirement retroactive. Again, the logistics of enforcement were overwhelming, and county building officials could do little more than advise homeowners of the requirement.

It was not until last year that the City Council, at the urging of fire officials, added a retroactive provision to the Los Angeles burglar bar law.

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The ordinance allows bars to be permanently bolted to a sleeping room window only if the room has a second unobstructed window or door leading directly outside.

The new ordinance also gave the Building and Safety Department money to establish an inspection program, raising the number of inspectors to 11. There had been only two.

Amazed at Number

In March, firefighters at each city fire station began compiling a list of every home with burglar bars. ‘They were amazed at how many homes had them,” said Ken Johnson, a battalion chief who is coordinating the block-by-block count.

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The lists are being turned over to the Building and Safety Department, which will eventually contact each homeowner and ask for proof of a satisfactory quick-release system.

When officials began notifying homeowners in April, they estimated that it would take three years to bring all homes into compliance. But in the wake of the 113th Street fire, pressure has grown to speed the process. Last Wednesday, the council’s Building and Safety Committee recommended hiring seven more inspectors. The recommendation must be approved by the full council.

Barton, the city building inspector in charge of the program, acknowledged that it will be difficult to persuade homeowners to add a quick-release device or replace one that does not come up to standard.

“People have had the bars there for 20 years and you have to convince them that just because they haven’t had a fire for 20 years, they could have one tomorrow,” he said. “A lot of this is going to be public education.”

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A lot of it is also going to be economic.

Balks at Cost

Marks said that shortly after the 113th Street fire, one of his salesmen received a call from a homeowner a block away who wanted to add quick-release devices to three bedroom windows.

“We said it would be $150 to convert them,” Marks said. “She said forget it. Too much money.”

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Several installers said they believe the city’s effort will not be effective because there are too many shoddy companies, too many homes with unsafe bars and no city enforcement aimed at installers who violate the law or at suppliers who sell iron bars.

“The city has let this run wild for too long,” Sojka said. “What they’re trying to do is good, but it should have been done 10 years ago. They wouldn’t have had this problem with the deaths that have taken place.”


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