Proposed fire codes for Lawrence pet-related businesses would exceed some residential codes

Christal K-9, left, after a fire in November 2014, and Pet World, right, after a fire in May 2015.

When a fire last month left multiple animals dead at Lawrence’s Pet World store, that was the final straw for many Lawrence city commissioners who are now considering tougher fire codes that will require sprinklers, advanced smoke alarms and other such devices at pet-related businesses across the city.

Thus far, though, the Pet World fire has not caused a City Hall discussion about strengthening the fire code for thousands of apartments or other human dwelling units in the city that have lesser fire protection methods in place than what is being considered for the pet-related businesses.

“I can definitely see how that would open up a whole other ball of yarn if we start to talk about regulations for people,” said City Commissioner Leslie Soden, who also owns a business that provides pet-sitting services for people in their homes. “My No. 1 thing holding me back from that is I don’t want the conversation to get sidetracked from what we’re talking about with the animal-related businesses. That would be a huge topic to talk about.”

Commissioners earlier this month received a proposal to require pet-related businesses to have sprinkler systems, smoke alarms that are both hard-wired and monitored by an alarm company, carbon monoxide detectors and other such devices.

All those precautions currently are required for newly constructed apartment buildings in Lawrence as well. But here’s the difference: Commissioners are considering proposals that would require existing pet-related businesses to install sprinklers and monitored alarms too. That’s a new step for the city. When new fire codes have been adopted in the past, the city has not required existing apartment buildings or single-family homes, for example, to meet the new code requirements, said Jim King, the city’s fire marshal and division chief for fire prevention. Existing units are only required to upgrade to new codes if they undergo a significant remodeling.

About 250 people gathered to attend a candlelight vigil held Wednesday evening outside of Pet World, 711 W 23rd St. The vigil ran from 8:20 p.m. until 8:47 p.m. with each minute signifying one year that the store was opened.

That has created a situation where King estimates the majority of smoke alarms in use in the city are the old battery operated type. You know the kind: They go chirp, chirp, chirp in the middle of the night, until someone removes the battery. If a new battery never gets replaced, the smoke alarms are useless. Smoke alarms that aren’t properly working are the No. 1 code violation city inspectors are finding as they inspect rental units across the city.

“We find especially in the rental units that students have a lot of other uses for the nine-volt battery,” King said.

There is an obvious difference between the situation pets and humans find themselves in during a fire. The fire at Pet World — and an earlier fire at Christal K-9 — both involved pets in cages, some of whom were being boarded overnight. Animals have far less ability to help themselves escape a fire than humans do.

But King said the situation humans and pets may find themselves in during a fire may be more similar than you would think.

“It makes perfect sense for humans too,” King said of increased fire protection standards for human dwelling units.

King said residents who are disabled, ill, elderly, very young or just plain incapacitated for any of the number of reasons that people become incapacitated in a college community are at risk. Plus, King said if people are living in a unit with an inoperable smoke alarm, they may wake up surrounded by smoke and in a dangerous situation. City Hall officials last year produced a video with a fire survivor talking about how difficult escape can be.

Pet World staff and volunteers and area veterinarians give oxygen to reptiles rescued from the store by Lawrence firefighters after an afternoon fire on Monday, May 25, 2015.

City fire officials have not made any recommendations about whether fire codes should be changed for human dwelling units. King said professional firefighters always like to see the use of sprinklers, advanced smoke alarms and other fire protection devices. But he said there’s also a recognition that requiring such retroactive installations can be difficult politically and sometimes economically.

Technically, fire officials aren’t recommending installation of sprinkler systems retroactively for pet businesses either. That recommendation has come from the owners of Pet World and other pet advocates. City commissioners have said they want to consider requiring the retroactive sprinkler installations for all pet businesses in the city. Fire department officials are recommending the retroactive installation of hardwired, monitored smoke alarms for pet-related businesses.

Several city commissioners said they understand the issue, but also recognize anything that would add to the costs of apartment owners or homeowners would be controversial.

“I will be delighted to take part in whatever conversation the community wants to have, but I don’t see me driving this one,” said Commissioner Stuart Boley. “That would be a big issue in the apartment world and the business world.”

City Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who is a Lawrence landlord, said city policies that begin affecting the living units of residents are always tricky.

“I think people get a little bit leery when we start telling people what to do in their own homes,” Herbert said.

Mayor Jeremy Farmer said he’ll be interested to see if the Pet World discussion does cause a larger discussion about fire codes.

“If people are interested in having that type of conversation, we need to have it,” Farmer said.

He said retroactively requiring apartments to install sprinkler systems could be very expensive and disruptive. Requiring single-family units to install sprinkler systems isn’t allowed under state law. The state has passed laws that block cities from requiring sprinkler systems in single-family homes, King said. But Farmer said a requirement that smoke alarms in the city be upgraded to hardwired devices that aren’t solely dependent on a battery likely would come at a much more reasonable cost.

“We tend to have these conversations in reaction to a tragedy, and that is unfortunate,” Farmer said.

King said Lawrence has been fortunate in the low number of fire-related deaths in recent years. An apartment fire at the Boardwalk Apartments killed three and left 17 injured in 2005. King said more recent fires have produced significant injuries as residents have had to jump from second-story windows and take other such actions to escape.

City officials currently are gathering more feedback from veterinarians and other owners of pet-related businesses in the city. The proposed fire code changes for those pet-related businesses are expected to come back to the City Commission for discussion in the next several weeks.