Fire Alarm Issue Update 

Houston City Council Adopts Fire Alarm Compromise Sought by HAA.   

Executive Summary

Houston adopted a compromise solution on fire alarm retrofit in November 2010. Under the new Fire Code, only unsprinklered apartment buildings with 17+ units with units opening onto interior corridors will be required to retrofit automatically with pull-station fire alarms, and those alarms will not require monitoring. Interior-corridor properties with up to 50 affected units will have until the end of 2012, larger interior-corridor properties until the end of 2013. Garden style properties will have to install pull-station fire alarms only in the event of a "major rehab," defined as work costing 25% or more of the building's market value. In exchange for this concession, Houston will require all apartment bedrooms not already equipped with smoke detectors to be retrofitted with battery-operated, single-station (not interconnected) smoke detectors by the end of 2011. The actual text of the new requirement is posted here.

HAA negotiates major change in Houston Fire Code

As most of you know, the biggest local legislative issue facing the apartment industry this year has been a Houston Fire Code provision requiring the retroactive installation of monitored, pull-station fire alarms in existing apartment properties. Projected to cost an average of between $600 and $800 per affected unit, the requirement was going to cost the industry a total of around $70 million dollars. In addition to the installation cost, the monitoring requirement would have imposed an additional ongoing cost for dedicated phone lines and a monthly alarm monitoring fee.

Making this issue more difficult: It wasn’t just a proposal, it was a provision that was already in the Houston Fire Code, where it had been - unnoticed by fire inspectors or apartment owners - since 2003.

HAA’s initial efforts to remove or modify the proposal met with stiff resistance from the city. The best Houston’s fire department was willing to do was to allow large properties additional time to raise the money for installation, which really didn’t solve the problem. By the summer of this year, as word of the impending enforcement of this provision began to spread, property sales were already being affected. Buyers were demanding, understandably, huge reductions in purchase price to offset the expense of fire alarm installation.

Over the past several months, however, HAA has been working with Mayor Annise Parker and Houston’s new Fire Chief, Terry Garrison, to achieve a workable solution. On November 9, 2010, a compromise was adopted unanimously by Houston’s City Council. Here’s what it does.

Unmonitored Fire Alarms for Enclosed-Corridor Buildings

The original code provision would have basically required every unsprinklered apartment building with 17 or more units to retrofit with monitored, pull-station fire alarms. The new provision exempts all buildings except those with units opening onto interior corridors. Open breezeways are not enclosed corridors. If you have an unsprinklered building with more than 17 units where the units open into enclosed hallways, you will have to retrofit that building with pull-station fire alarms. The required fire alarms are audible-only, and do not need to be monitored, but will need to activate an alarm in the property's on-site management office. Interior-corridor buildings with up to 50 affected units will need to have the retrofit complete by the end of 2012. Buildings with 51 or more affected units will have until the end of 2013.

Unmonitored Fire Alarms Required in Garden-Style Only with Major Rehab

Buildings with 17 or more units with units opening to the outside or into open breezeways are required to retrofit with audible, non-monitored, pull-station fire alarms only if “rehabilitation work is performed in the building” costing 25 percent or more of the “market value of the building.”

Smoke Detectors in All Bedrooms

Apartment properties built since the 1980s have been required to have smoke detectors inside and outside of each bedroom. All the detectors are interconnected so that if one goes off, they all go off. They’re hard wired, and have a battery backup. In older properties, however, battery smoke detectors have only been required outside any bedroom door.

The new Fire Code will require all existing properties to add a battery-operated smoke detector in every apartment bedroom that doesn't already have one by the end of 2011. The required detectors are “single-station” smoke detectors, and do not have to be hard wired, nor interconnected with any other detectors. As with other smoke detectors, the owner is responsible for making sure it works when a resident moves in. It’s the resident’s responsibility thereafter to change the batteries and make sure it continues to work.

Other Provisions

This article basically describes how the requirement will impact most owners (check out the link above to read the full text of the adopted code language, as there are a few additional aspects). For example, condo properties are completely exempt from the fire alarm retrofit provision. A 2-hour rated firewall separating a building from slab to roof essentially makes it two buildings for fire code purposes, meaning some buildings with 17 or more units may be exempt from the fire alarm retrofit requirement, or could be made to be exempt. There are additional exceptions for buildings with separate exits for each upstairs unit.

What To Do Now

If you have a letter from a fire inspector asking for a plan to retrofit your property with fire alarms, this new code provision specifically changes the scenario described in that letter. Houston fire inspectors are well aware of this change, and should work with you under the new requirement. If you have replied to that letter, giving the fire department a specific plan for your property, let your inspector know if your property’s requirement has changed under the new code.

If you have buildings with more than 17 units that open into enclosed corridors, start working now with your preferred fire alarm company to develop a plan to have a system installed by the appropriate deadline. Make sure your alarm company understands that there is no monitoring requirement for these alarms. Most cities that require pull-station fire alarms require them to be monitored, so companies are used to installing systems with dedicated phone lines and such. Also, make sure your building isn’t separated by a 2-hour slab-to-roof fire wall – you may be exempt if you have fewer than 17 units between fire walls.

If you have any type of apartment building in the city limits of Houston that does not already have smoke detectors in the bedrooms, start planning now how to get that done in 2011. The detectors are inexpensive (generally $7.00 or less), and easy to install, but we estimate that Houston apartment properties will be buying approximately half a million smoke detectors next year to comply with the new code, so waiting until the last minute may be unwise  

When you seek to comply with this ordinance please consider using an HAA member fire alarm company (type in "Fire Alarm Systems" in the search category). 

HAA will continue to share more information about this issue as it develops. If you would like any information on any of HAA's legislative activities, please contact