Someone living in the basement? Make sure it's safe

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2014 - 6:07 PM

Don’t ignore fire prevention rules for basement bedrooms.

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A basement bedroom with one small window and one large egress window.

Photo: Photo by Andrea Rugg,

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At this time of year, many college students head home for the summer to live with their parents. Some work summer jobs before heading back to school. Graduates often stay at home until they land that first job and can afford to pay their own rent.

During the recession and in the early stages of the tepid recovery, many young adults moved back home or bunked with friends because of unemployment or underemployment. In some cases, the best available living quarters were in attic or basement rooms retrofitted as makeshift apartments. Too often, safety was an afterthought.

Since November, St. Paul firefighters have responded to three house fires in which people were trapped in basement bedrooms — without a second exit.

Occupants survived in two of those fires, but a man died in the November blaze on N. Lexington Avenue.

In the wake of those fires, local fire officials reminded the public that it is illegal to have basement bedrooms without regulation safety exits. Under state and local housing codes, if anyone is sleeping in the below-ground level of a home, there must be a second door or window large enough for them to escape in case of fire.

It’s a smart safety rule that too many homeowners ignore — and at their own peril. Human error or neglect cause almost all residential blazes, according to fire officials. Common causes include failing to blow out a candle, forgetting something on the stove or overloading electrical outlets. So, as fire safety experts say, any structure where there are people is at risk for fire. St. Paul Fire Department investigator Jamie Novak told the Star Tribune that many people are unaware of the escape-window requirement, while others go without to avoid the expense of adding egress windows. At the very least, there should be a smoke detector in every bedroom and on every level of a home, he said.

“It’s one of the most frustrating things,’’ Novak added. “We have the technology that only costs a few bucks, and too many people still don’t use it. We go in after fires and find out the homeowner has smoke detectors — but they’re in a drawer someplace, or the battery ran down. Or people take them down when they paint and forget to put them back up.’’

Another safety precaution that all homeowners, landlords and renters should take is to identify escape routes from each room in their buildings — including basements — and routinely have fire drills.

After two fatal fires already this year, the St. Paul Fire Department and city inspectors are wisely discussing ways to work together to help with a backlog of inspections on rental buildings. The two 2014 fatalities occurred in rental properties where inspections for safety code compliance had not taken place or were overdue.

Unless there is a complaint about a code violation, owner-occupied homes are not subject to regular inspections, leaving owners responsible for doing the right thing.

In 2012, there were 6,429 building fires in Minnesota, with about 76 percent in residential properties. Most of those fires — about 50 percent — started in kitchens, with fewer than 5 percent originating below grade, according to figures from the state fire marshal.

Still, it only takes minutes for a building to fill with smoke. Regardless of the point of origin, a relatively routine building fire can turn into a deadly tragedy without an adequate alarm system and regulation escape routes from every floor and room.

  • ESCAPE AND RESCUE

    “Too many people just don’t know that there has to be a door or a window that is at least 5 square feet in size in a basement [if anyone sleeps there]. … That’s to make sure there is a second way out in case of fire. But it is also so that firefighters can get in. We often rescue people from fires through those windows.’’

    St. Paul Fire Marshal STEVE ZACCARD

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