In federal fire statistics, it was one of the typical "fire death scenarios." A mental outpatient crept down the stairs of an old D.C. rowhouse for her nightly smoke. When she struck a match, the book burst into flames.
The matches fell onto a stuffed couch at the foot of the stairs. Before she could fill a coffee pot with water to put it out, the room was aflame.
The open staircase sucked the flames quickly into the rest of the house. Even as her screams of "Fire!" punctured the quiet of the night, it was too late for many other residents.
Nine persons died in the fire that consumed the community residence on Lamont Street a year ago. Another succumbed later in the hospital. But that fire, one of the worst in the city's memory, has produced what city and federal officials hope will become a model for safety.
The D.C. government recently received a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Fire Administration to install a sprinkler system at a community residence run by Saints Missionary Foundation Inc., planned for the rowhouses at 1305 and 1306 Irving St. NW. When completed, the shelter will house homeless persons on minimum incomes, many of them elderly, some former St. Elizabeth's patients. The home also will serve as a federal demonstration project for such facilities and will be open to visiting fire officials from across the country.
"Community residence facilities are relatively new throughout the country," said Lt. Jack Fletcher of the D.C. Fire Department, "in the sense that we're still developing the criteria for making them safe against fire."
The District had hundreds of homes such as the one that went up in flames on Lamont Street. A "strike force" assembled by Mayor Marion Barry counted 335, all requiring some kind of remedial action to bring them into line with city fire safety codes.
Many, officials found, were without fire escapes. Most are older houses, built more than half a century ago and never intended to be filled with elderly or infirm patients, sometimes mentally impaired, who can't always be expected to save their own lives in a fire.
Along with fire safety authorities nationwide, D.C. officials believe sprinklers may be a key way to remedy fire safety defects.
Sprinkler systems have long been common in industry and commerce and have been adapted for residential use. The U.S. Fire Administration in washington is sponsoring development of even more sophisticated models to fight fires in residential situations. Some cities, such as San Clemente, Calif., have made sprinkler systerms mandatory in all new homes and apartment buildings.
The Lamont Street fire brought the movement to the Capital.
Oddly enough, the Fire Administration's demonstration house will be old even before it is finished. While the city was waiting for the paperwork to go through, Mayor Barry's inspectors were alreadly in the field, giving notice to owners of community care facilities to bring their dwellings up to fire safety code standards or face closure.
The word was: Fix it or get a sprinkler system. Many home operators chose to make repairs, the inspectors reported. At least a dozen, however, found that when they looked at the cost of fire escapes and fire doors mandated by the codes, and looked at the price of sprinklers, they did better with sprinklers.
"It would have been a total renovation of my home," said Flora E. Holt of the improvements the inspectors proposed. Her facility houses St. Elizabeths' outpatients at 3603 13th St. NW. "They wanted me to tear out all the wood and put in fireproof material, which would have cost a pretty fortune."
For Erich Simpson of Social Services Properties, which operates nine homes in the District, bringing the community house at 3221-3223 Hiatt PL. NW up to codes would have meant putting new fire escapes in rooms for 18 alcoholic residents, plus new material fire doors.
When offered the sprinkler alternative, the firm accepted. Simpson figures that even with the $8,000 cost of his sprinkler system, he will save half of what it would have cost to keep the house in business.
Sprinklers, Fletcher said, will allow Simpson to keep the wooden doors, paneling and open staircases that make the house a home, rather than an institution.
Home Fire Sprinkler Co., Inc., in Baltimore, finds that concern for fire safety in community care facilities is creating a new market for sprinklers. Besides his customers in the District, company president Jim Makibbin is under contract to install sprinklers in similar facilities in Maryland. A potential 1,000 jobs await there, each with an average $3,500-to-$4,500 price tag, he said.
"Who's going to wait (for the newer models)," said Makibbin, "when people are dying in fires?"