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Montgomery Weighs Sprinkler Retrofitting

Carr said some fire doors did not close or were propped open, debris blocked emergency exits and a fire pump did not have enough pressure to work well.

He said a dozen citations were issued to the building's owner, the Tower Cos., ordering it to correct code violations.

Two people were killed in a fire in their home at the Blair East Apartment building in Silver Spring. The building does not have sprinklers. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

Tower executives did not respond to several phone requests for comment.

Carr said yesterday that some of the violations could have been fixed had fire officials recently inspected the building for safety issues. The Blair East Apartments, in the 1200 block of East-West Highway, were last inspected in 2000, according to Piringer.

"I'd like to say we go and do a life-saving inspection of all the buildings in the county every year, but we don't," Carr said. "We don't have the resources to do that.''

Carr's decision to push for the new regulations follows months of negotiations between the county and the apartment owners group over how to implement the standards and how stringent they would be.

In December, the talks broke down after county officials insisted that condominium buildings be included, according to Lesa N. Hoover, a vice president of government affairs for the apartment owners.

Hoover said county fire officials agreed yesterday to proceed with the regulations even though they hadn't won the support of high-rise condominium organizations.

Although the details are still being finalized, Carr and Hoover said they would probably require high-rise apartment building owners to retrofit their property within 12 years. Owners who do it much sooner will be eligible for tax credits, Hoover said.

Andrews, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee who crafted the 2004 county law that requires sprinklers in all newly built single-family homes, said more needs to be done. "People need to be protected where they live, whether it's an apartment building or condo," he said.

But other council members are skeptical of his approach, saying it could drive up housing costs.

"I am frankly more concerned about the issue of why the fire alarm did not go off than requiring condos and apartments to absorb millions of dollars in retrofit costs, all of which will be passed on to owners and tenants," council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said.

Carr said the expense would be worthwhile.

In the past week, county firefighters responded to fires started because of smoking in three high-rise apartments where elderly residents live, he said.

In the two incidents at buildings with sprinklers, one sprinkler head doused the flames before firefighters arrived.

"In one case, it was the sprinkler that put out the fire in a chair and a fire on the gentlemen in the chair," Carr said, noting that the man was slightly injured. "The difference in outcome -- two deaths versus one injury -- offers quite a contrasting outcome because of the impact of sprinklers."

Staff writer Annys Shin contributed to this report.

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