Bradley Proposes Law to Upgrade Fire Safety : But Mayor Opposes City Loans in Installation of Sprinklers, Smoke Vents in 500 High-Rises

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley on Monday proposed a tough city law requiring extensive fire safety installations in more than 500 high-rise buildings--and said the costs should be met by building owners. He said he opposes a suggestion that city loans be used to help pay the costs.

Under the mayor’s plan, older high-rises not subject to a 1974 sprinkler law would require retrofitting with automatic sprinklers, fire-resistant elevator vestibules and roof-top smoke escapes within three years.

Fire experts have said that had such systems been in place during the May 4 fire in the 62-story First Interstate Bank building in downtown Los Angeles, damage and injuries would have been greatly reduced and fire-fighting efforts greatly enhanced. One person died and 40 were injured in the high-rise blaze that resulted in tens of millions of dollars in damage.


Bradley urged the City Council to enact the mandatory sprinkler retrofitting plan without delay even if it appears that a fight will ensue over the vestibule and ventilation requirements.

And, in a potentially controversial statement, Bradley told The Times that he is opposed to providing low-interest loans to building owners to cushion the economic impact of the additional fire protection requirements.

“I don’t see the necessity” for the loans, Bradley said. “We had the Ponet (Square) ordinance and we had the Dorothy Mae (Hotel) ordinance; everybody thought that they were going to be so costly that they couldn’t be done without financial subsidy. They’ve been done without any financial subsidy.”

Bradley was referring to past retrofitting laws that grew out of disastrous fires elsewhere in the city.

“I think in this case, the value of those high-rise buildings (and) the income from their tenants is such that a $3.5-million retrofit is not a major burden on them,” Bradley said.

Central City Assn. President Christopher Stewart and Geoffrey Ely of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. said the city’s oldest high-rises which do not charge as much rent--particularly along Spring Street and Broadway--should receive financial aid or they may be abandoned.

Ely said older high-rises were in compliance with fire codes in force when they were built and that owners should not now be penalized by having to pay all costs of retrofitting.

Richard Alatorre, chairman of the council’s Police, Fire and Public Safety Committee, was noncommittal about the mayor’s plan, saying through a spokesman that his panel will consider it during hearings next week. Councilman Nate Holden, who also has proposed sprinkler retrofitting in high-rises, said he wants to learn more about the costs of the elevator vestibule and ventilator ideas.

Recommendations Embraced

Bradley’s proposal embraces the recommendations of an emergency task force he appointed a day after the First Interstate Bank fire. It also comes nearly a week after the City Council voted to draft a sprinkler retrofitting ordinance for existing private and public office buildings at least 75 feet in height that were built before July, 1974. State law enacted in 1974 requires sprinklers in all new high-rises.

The mayor’s task force, headed by Building and Safety General Manager Frank V. Kroeger and Fire Chief Donald O. Manning, confined its recommendations to the sprinkler, ventilation and vestibule requirements. But in a letter signed by the two department heads, the task force said other fire protection code changes may also be needed.

Kroeger and Manning said Bradley’s proposal “would provide the most appropriate and effective protection” for the older high-rises. But they added that “other less paramount issues will need additional study.”

Blamed for Death

Manning said the task force also is studying whether to prohibit anyone other than a firefighter from overriding an elevator called to the lobby floor during a fire. Just such an action was blamed for the death of Alexander Handy, who had taken an elevator to the 12th floor of the building and then was trapped by flames and smoke.

If Bradley’s plan is adopted, the more than 500 high-rises without sprinklers in the city would have one year to submit a retrofitting plan and another two years to make the necessary corrections.

The tallest buildings in the city would be required to retrofit first under Bradley’s plan.

Features of the mayor’s proposal include:

- Elevator vestibule systems. Newer high-rises are, by law, required to install automatic fire-resistant doors on either side of the elevator waiting areas. The doors are designed to close once a smoke alarm is activated and act as a check against flames or smoke entering the vestibule for at least 45 minutes.

Smoke in Shafts

Survivors of the First Interstate Bank fire reported that heavy smoke had entered the elevator shafts as they tried to take elevators to the lobby floor.

The proposed ordinance also would mandate that elevator doors at a building’s lobby level be automatically locked if a smoke detector is activated and that all elevators return to the main floor.

- Smoke ventilation systems. First Interstate building employees and city firefighters said the stairways were filled with heavy smoke, making escape often difficult or impossible even though stairways are the advisable exit route during a fire.

Under Bradley’s plan, each stair shaft extending to the roof level of an older high-rise would be required to have a minimum 20-square foot ventilation opening to the roof where smoke could escape.