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State report: Sprinklers could have saved 5 lives in Cedar-Riverside public high-rise fire

DPS said five people who died in a high-rise fire in Minneapolis the day before Thanksgiving last year could have been saved if the building had fire sprinklers.

MINNEAPOLIS — According to a report released on Tuesday by the Department of Public Safety (DPS), five people who died in a fire the day before Thanksgiving last year could have been saved if the high-rise building had fire sprinklers installed.

The fire, which was ruled an accident, broke out on Nov. 27, 2019 on the 14th floor of a 25-story Minneapolis Public Housing complex in the Cedar-Riverside area. That building, which predated mandatory sprinkler laws, had sprinklers only on the entry level and basement mechanical areas.

“This tragic loss of life could have been prevented," State Fire Marshal Jim Smith said in a press release Tuesday. "The victims would still be alive had there been sprinklers throughout that entire building. We owe it to the victims and their families to learn from this fire so we can prevent similar tragedies.”

According to the report, while some safety features were present in the building, there were not redundant features to protect the residents once a single safety element failed.

DPS and the State Fire Marshall Division (SFMD) both recommend all high-rise buildings in Minnesota have fire sprinkler systems throughout, and urge residential building owners to discontinue the practice of propping fire doors open or placing objects in the path of the door that prevent it from closing in a fire. 

Both departments also recommend encouraging fire separations for existing “scissor stairs” to form independent stair enclosures to provide at least two distinct paths of escape.

"It is the SFMD’s position that all high-rise buildings should be protected with fire sprinkler systems," the report reads. "Had this building been protected with fire sprinklers, it is the opinion of the SFMD that no loss of life would have occurred."

A spokesperson for DPS said in a statement Monday that there are no enforceable penalties or legal consequences for the building owners, because sprinklers are not required to be retroactively added to existing high-rise buildings.

"Representative Mohamud Noor, last year, who represents the Cedar Riverside area did present a bill to the house, that would have – had it gone through the house and senate – required a retroactive series of sprinklers,"  State Fire Marshal Jim Smith saod. 

Smith said other factors like "scissor stairs" made it easier for the smoke inside the high-rise to spread through different corridors. 

"On the 17th floor, unfortunately one victim succumbed to the smoke in the stairwell," Smith said.

According to the report, there have been 65 documented fire sprinkler saves in Minnesota from 2004 to 2019.

A spokesperson with Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) provided this statement:

In regard to questions about sprinklers: 

In-unit fire-sprinkler systems remain a top priority within MPHA’s capital improvement budget.

MPHA is currently following a plan to complete sprinkler installation in all high-rise buildings within 10 years, given sufficient funding. Our capital improvement plan for 2021 calls for MPHA to install them in six more buildings, which will bring the total to 24 (57% of our portfolio). 

Decades of federal underfunding have left MPHA with a need of more than $150 million of essential repairs and updates to its 6,000 public housing units. Against this, the agency receives approximately $15 million annually for capital repairs from Congress.

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