Day-Care Fire Spurs Action by Legislature : After 2 Infant Deaths in Huntington Beach, Bill Is Passed to Make Smoke Detectors Mandatory

Times Staff Writer

A bill that would require smoke detectors in all day-care homes, regardless of size, was approved Monday by the California Legislature--11 days after two babies died of smoke inhalation at a Huntington Beach baby-sitter's house that was equipped with only a fire extinguisher.

And in an effort to reach even unlicensed day-care facilities, the Huntington Beach City Council late Monday passed an emergency ordinance requiring smoke detectors in every home.

The proposed new state requirement was added to an existing bill by state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) last week after the tragic June 8 fire underscored a confusing array of state and local day-care regulations--some of which contradict each other.

"I think the state law is great and I wish it would have been in effect sooner," Susan Jordan, whose 8-month-old daughter died in the Huntington Beach blaze, said at the Huntington Beach City Council meeting.

Jordan added tearfully, "I think it is sad that two innocent children had to die because of loopholes in our state day-care system."

If Watson's bill is signed by the governor, both fire extinguishers and smoke detectors will be required for a facility to be licensed as a family day-care center in California. Current licensing laws for centers caring for fewer than seven children--such as the Huntington Beach fire site--now allow a choice of either device.

The actions come in the wake of a blaze that left two infants dead and two other children and their baby-sitter injured despite the valiant efforts of several passers-by. The swift-moving fire gutted the licensed family day-care center. Investigators have said that a smoke detector probably would have saved the babies' lives.

While baby-sitter Pat Orozco was in the bathroom of her Audrey Drive home, fire investigators said, one of the children she cared for started the blaze with a disposable cigarette lighter.

Orozco ran from her burning home with a child under each arm and returned for two others, but neither she nor other neighborhood residents were able to rescue 13-month-old John D. Reilly IV or 8-month-old Jessica Jordan. Orozco was hospitalized with burns she suffered saving Devon Strayer, 3, and 6-month-old Nick Duncan. Those two children also were burned in the fire.

Huntington Beach Fire Department officials said that the baby boy and girl who died probably would have been saved had there been a smoke detector in the home. Orozco had opted for a fire extinguisher, which investigators found in the kitchen.

"We just assumed there was a smoke detector there," said Jordan, who urged the Huntington Beach City Council to pass the ordinance Monday night. The council voted 6 to 0 to require smoke detectors.

Providers of day care to more than seven children are already required by state law to have both smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

Governor Must Sign

The more stringent state requirements are part of an amendment Watson added to a noncontroversial bill she authored that extends by five years the state government's power to license family day-care facilities serving between six and 12 children.

The Assembly passed the legislation 69 to 3 with little discussion, according to Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Carmichael), who carried the bill. Because of a flight delay, Watson missed the Senate vote on her bill. However, state Sen. Becky Morgan (R-Los Altos Hills), carried the legislation, which passed 37 to 0.

It still must be signed by Gov. George Deukmejian. Leslie said he expects that to happen by June 30.

"There's no reason at all why he (Deukmejian) wouldn't sign it," said Leslie, who represents a rural suburban district near Sacramento.

Two other amendments were added. One allows home day-care providers to exclude counting their own children from the total number they are permitted to baby-sit--if their children are at least 10 years old. The second establishes pilot programs in Ventura and Placer counties that permit home day-care providers to baby-sit two school-age "latch-key" children without added licensing requirements.

State law already requires smoke detectors in homes built after 1975 and those that undergo remodeling or change ownership. But Huntington Beach Fire Marshal James P. Vincent said that about half of the city's homes, including apartments, are without smoke detectors.

Under the city ordinance, home owners will have 90 days to install the devices.

Although Huntington Beach officials were aware that the Legislature passed Watson's bill, they said requiring only day-care facilities to install smoke detectors was inadequate to protect against future tragedies, given the estimated 20,000 unlicensed homes providing day-care across the state. By requiring all homes to have smoke detectors, Vincent said, even children in unlicensed day-care facilities could be protected.

Enforcement of the new state regulation remains a question, however. State inspectors, who estimate that there are 40,000 licensed day-care facilities in California, say they currently are hard-pressed to enforce existing licensing regulations.

In Huntington Beach, Vincent said the city will try to get out the word of the new smoke detector requirement through broadcasts on the city's public access cable channel. A quarterly newsletter published by the city and sent to each resident also will announce the requirement.

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