A Minneapolis high-rise fire that killed five residents in 2019 has prompted legislators to re-examine automatic sprinkler system requirements.
The Minnesota House voted Monday for a rule that would retrofit dozens of out-of-date buildings across the state, bringing them in line with current state sprinkler requirements by August 2033. Public and private buildings that have people occupying space above 75 feet, the highest reach of many fire department vehicles, would have to make the change.
"We need to make sure we take care of the safety of individuals who live in high-rise buildings so we don't have to deal with the tragic incident that we saw on November 27 of 2019," said Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill's sponsor.
The House voted 103-30 for the bill, but the future of the sprinkler requirement is uncertain this session. The Senate version of the measure is more limited in scope. It would apply only to public housing buildings, while the House bill would apply to public and privately owned buildings and would include both residential and office spaces.
Noor's measure would impact roughly 69 residential and commercial high-rise buildings in Minnesota, said Tom Brace, former state fire marshal and Minnesota coordinator for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, citing a state fire marshal survey. About a third of those buildings are in Minneapolis.
On that deadly day in November 2019, the fire began shortly before 4 a.m. on the 14th floor of the Cedar High Apartments run by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. An investigation by the State Fire Marshal's Office found that an improper door seal, an outdated stairwell design and a lack of sprinklers contributed to five residents' deaths. A sixth died months later of COVID-19, with smoke inhalation from the fire listed as a significant factor on the medical examiner's report.
The 25-story, half-century-old Cedar High Apartments had sprinklers on the main floor and lower mechanical equipment room, but not inside the units where residents live.
"Had there been a sprinkler in the bedroom, that sprinkler head would have activated right away, put the fire out," Minnesota Fire Marshal Jim Smith said after his agency released its report.
State lawmakers twice passed bills in the 1990s to require that old high-rise buildings have sprinklers on almost every floor. But then-Gov. Arne Carlson vetoed the sprinkler retrofit rules after housing groups opposed them, complaining that there wasn't funding for the changes.
"I think we failed in that regard," Carlson has since said. "From the viewpoint of safety, that should have come first."
The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents property owners, has warned that the bill could impact affordable housing in the state.
"Without including state funding in this proposal, these facilities would likely see an increase in rents to offset the costs of the mandate," Kyle Berndt of the association wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Rep. Tim O'Driscoll, R-Sartell, said as the legislation moves forward the state should find money to relieve the burden on property owners.
Noor said he is hopeful federal funding could help pay for the cost of adding the sprinklers in older public housing buildings. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have pushed for a Public Housing Fire Safety Act that would create a $25 million annual competitive grant program to help public housing authorities retrofit spaces.
The sponsor of the state Senate version of the bill, Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said she is looking at state funding options such as bonding or a loan program through the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Sprinkler retrofits could cost up to $1 million for a building, she said.
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority's latest plans call for installing in-unit sprinklers in all high-rise buildings within the next three to five years, if funding is available.
The city of Minneapolis is considering giving the Housing Authority a $1 million grant to cover a portion of the costs of installing larger sprinkler systems in four-high rise buildings, including the Cedar High Apartments. The City Council is expected to vote on that Friday, and it will then head to Mayor Jacob Frey for review.
The House bill would give building owners 12 years to meet the requirement, and it provides leeway to those who demonstrate a "genuine inability to comply within the time prescribed."
"If someone is not able to do it because of funding issues, they can always request an extension," Noor said.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994