State does not mandate sprinklers in older hotels

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Scorched walls and piles of rubble mark where a fire ravaged the south wing of the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort in North Conway on Saturday, seen here after some clean-up work on Sunday afternoon. Photo/Rachel Sharples

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CONWAY, NH — State fire codes didn’t require the Red Jacket Mountain Resort to have sprinklers, but town ordinances can be stricter, said the town’s emergency management director, Steve Solomon, adding that stricter codes can be hard for some lodging establishments to afford.

The fire that broke out at the Red Jacket on Saturday destroyed the 75-room south wing and displaced about 150 guests. According to the Fox Ridge Resort, a former sister establishment, all the guests have safely returned home.

Fire officials told reporters Sunday the south wing didn’t have to be sprinkled because it was built in the 1970s, before sprinklers were required. Other portions of the building are sprinkled.

Solomon said Monday: “Towns and cities in New Hampshire do have the authority to adopt a fire code stricter than the state’s fire code,” but said the law prohibits towns from mandating sprinklers in single-family homes.

“(The town) could actually enact local legislation,” he said.”

“The problem is, it is a very expensive endeavor. Sprinkling a building like that, probably costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Flames and smoke billow out of the south wing of the Red Jacket Mountain Resort in North Conway on Saturday afternoon. Photo/Rachel Sharples

He added that people are more likely to die in single-family home structure fires than any other kind.

Town Manager Tom Holmes said: “To adopt building codes stricter than the state fire code would require going before the voters via warrant article. Were that to happen, existing properties would be ‘grandfathered’ unless or until they choose to go through a major renovation.”

Solomon said when the Red Jacket was built, designers had the option of either installing sprinklers or having each unit have a door to the outdoors either at ground level or on a balcony.

“That was considered sufficient exit. Nowadays, a building of that size in nature would definitely be sprinkled,” Solomon said.

New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association President and CEO Mike Somers on Monday told the Sun that sprinkler systems are “exorbitantly expensive” to install in older buildings.

But had the building been fully sprinkled, including the attic and balconies, it would have made a difference. “That would have limited the fire spread; the fire departments would have been able to respond fast enough then to extinguish the fire; and you would have had a small number of rooms impacted,” said Solomon.

Firefighters in a bucket hose down the smoldering south wing of the Red Jacket Mountain Resort in North Conway on Saturday afternoon. Photo/Rachel Sharples

He said older buildings have to be brought up to current fire code when they undergo major renovations. “When they built the water park, the water park itself is large enough that it had to be sprinkled,” said Solomon. “So the water park in the central corner of the building got sprinkled, but they still weren’t required to do guest wings.”

Several state representatives were asked in the wake of the fire, if sprinklers should be mandated,

“You might be opening a hornet’s nest, and the cost may not justify the need, going back in time to the older commercial buildings,” said Rep. Mark McConkey (R-Freedom), who heads Mark McConkey Construction.

Rep. Karen Umberger (R-Conway) said: “I don’t think I could sponsor a bill like this as it would be a huge cost to the business owners.” But she added: “I certainly understand the concern.”

Rep. Jerry Knirk (D-Freedom) said he’d look into the fire codes but said, “Grandfathering does not make sense in lodging establishments.”

Rep. Anita Burroughs (D-Bartlett) said. “This is definitely something to research,” said Burroughs “It’s a miracle no one was killed in this fire.”

Rep. Jonathan Smith (R-Ossipee), a retired New York City firefighter said the cost to install sprinklers in an existing building “would be astronomical.”

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