In 1979, a fire swept through a foster home for mental outpatients on Lamont Street in Northwest Washington, killing nine elderly women. The home lacked a fire escape and fire doors, but it had been given an occupancy permit by D.C. building inspectors.
The disaster prompted the city to rewrite its laws governing residence facilities and to merge all the city's inspection agencies into one department, now called the Service Facility Regulation Administration. Officials vowed never again to allow such a life-threatening environment to exist in the city.
At the time of the fire, however, and for five years afterward, an unlicensed nursing home that lacked sprinklers and fire doors operated for many years and was judged to be a serious fire hazard for its wheelchair-bound residents on the second floor.
The Fannie Byrd Home, a 20-bed facility at 1620 V St. SE, operated for at least 14 years without a health or fire department license, according to court papers filed by the city.
City inspectors made periodic trips to the home, but often left without making an inspection because they were denied entry. In 1971 and 1972, a Superior Court judge convicted Fannie Byrd of the misdemeanor of operating without a license and ordered the home closed until it was licensed. But Byrd's efforts to get a license were unsuccessful and for at least 10 years, the city made no attempt to enforce the order.
"It had gotten bogged down in paperwork," said Chester Burke, a fire inspector in the D.C. Fire Marshal's Office. "We just didn't know it existed."
In 1982, Byrd again was found to be operating an unlicensed home. Byrd's attorney, Kurt Berlin, said neither he nor Byrd would comment on the matter.
The home, which finally was closed by a court order last fall, is an isolated example, according to Carol Thompson, director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
"Yes, we're a little slow," she said of the agency's efforts. "But enforcement has become a major issue and thrust for this agency."