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Despite repeated high-rise fires, L.A. still doesn’t require sprinklers in dozens of buildings

A man clings to the side of the Barrington Plaza.
A man clings to the side of Barrington Plaza on Wednesday as flames engulf an apartment balcony. Firefighters brought the man down safely.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The high-rise that caught fire Wednesday on Los Angeles’ Westside was not equipped with fire sprinklers, fire officials said, despite a fire in 2013 in the same building.

The fire Wednesday on the sixth floor of Barrington Plaza injured eight people, including a 3-month-old baby. The cause was under investigation, but officials said it looked suspicious.

Here is what we know:

Q: Why didn’t the tower have sprinklers?

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It’s because of a gap in L.A.'s fire safety rules.

After 24 people died in a fire in the four-story Dorothy Mae apartment complex near downtown in 1982, the city required that more than 1,300 buildings built before 1943 be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. In 1974, in the aftermath of a catastrophic fire in Brazil, California had passed a law requiring all new buildings to have sprinklers installed.

As a result, high-rise buildings built in those gap years, between 1943 and 1974, were not required to have sprinklers.

Los Angeles officials first made a push to retrofit all high-rises — commercial and residential — with sprinklers in 1988 after a fire at First Interstate Tower downtown killed one man and injured 40.

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But proponents opted to divide the proposal in two: one for businesses and one for residential.

Lawmakers approved retrofitting some 350 commercial buildings, but there was stronger resistance from the owners of residential buildings. The costs to retrofit were too high, they argued. It’s the same argument that was made in 2004 after a woman was critically burned in a tower in Koreatown.

That fire hit on the 11th floor of the Wilshire Tower on 7th Street. After the blaze, there was talk of tightening rules, but nothing was done.

A 2014 count by the city found 71 of the city’s roughly 200 residential high-rises did not have fire sprinkler systems.

What do we know about the 2013 Barrington Plaza fire?

The 2013 fire started on the 11th floor, displaced as many as 150 residents and injured two people.

According to residents, several fire alarms failed to sound. A door to the roof was locked, and the stairwells filled with choking smoke, tenants said.

At the time, L.A. fire officials said the building was not equipped with a sprinkler system. On Wednesday, fire officials told the Los Angeles Times that the building remained without sprinklers.

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Because it was built nearly 60 years ago, it does not fall under state regulations later adopted that forced buildings taller than 75 feet to include such fire-suppression systems unless granted an exemption.

In 2014, a group of tenants in the high-rise sued the building’s corporate owner for negligence.

How about other cities?

After the 2004 Koreatown fire, The Times reported on sprinkler policies in other areas:

After Boston’s Prudential Tower fire in 1986, Massachusetts required all high-rise buildings to install sprinkler systems and gave owners 10 years to complete the process.

In New York, only residential buildings with four or more units constructed after 1999 were required to have sprinkler systems, though there were some exceptions.

Florida required all high-rise buildings to retrofit for sprinkler systems as part of the engineered life safety plan that was passed throughout the state in 1994.


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