FOX19 Investigates: Cincinnati slow to enforce smoke detector law

Published: Feb. 20, 2015 at 9:01 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 24, 2015 at 3:03 PM EST
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - University of Cincinnati students Kinsley Slife and Annabeth Dennis contributed to this report.

A Cincinnati law intended to save lives in case of smoky fires may not be working as records show the city isn't keeping records that would enforce action.

A spot check conducted with the help of University of Cincinnati (UC) students showed fewer than 20 percent of rental units near the Clifton campus complied with the law, even though its final deadline is Feb. 27.

A law borne of tragedy

Cincinnati City Council passed the ordinance after a fatal New Year's Day 2013 house fire on Digby Avenue west of UC's Clifton campus. Two students, Ellen Garner, 20, and Chad Kohls, 21, died of smoke inhalation after a space heater on the second floor of their rental home caught bedding on fire. The smoke then rose to their third floor bedroom, trapping them.

The house was equipped with ionization smoke alarms, some of which were disabled. Ionization alarms detect flames much more readily than smoke. They often sound when someone is cooking, which leads some people to disconnect them.

After that fire, parents of students who died in several similar fires pressured Cincinnati City Council to pass an ordinance that would force landlords to install photoelectric smoke alarms. This newer technology detects smoke and smoldering fires more quickly than ionization alarms, which studies show are most commonly used.

The law passed in February 2013 with the support of the Cincinnati Fire Department and the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Apartment Association, which represents 80,000 rental units in the Tri-State, including 30,000 in Cincinnati.

"Photoelectric smoke detectors pick up slow burning fires, and more specifically slow-burning smoke, about 30 minutes faster than an ionic smoke detector," said Charles Tassell, the association's Director of Government Affairs. He says photoelectric technology is "safer for the residents. It's safer as an investment. It's safer all around."

Landlords of buildings with 12 or fewer units had 180 days to comply with the law. Their deadline was August 2013. Rental properties with 13 or more units have until Feb. 27.

Compliance is spotty

With the final ordinance deadline approaching, a team of UC students canvassed rental properties surrounding the campus. Of 87 units, only 17 were equipped with photoelectric detectors. Six properties had no detectors at all.

MAP: See where the students visited

Ellen Garner's mother, Ann, has been pushing for enforcement of this ordinance and other fire safety laws since 2013.

"It's very disheartening," Garner said of the survey results. She questioned why more landlords haven't complied. "Is it all for the money? Is that it? Do the folks who rent their properties, do their (tenants') lives mean nothing?"

Garner joined the effort after hearing from Dean Dennis, a Madeira father whose daughter Andrea died in an off-campus house fire at the Ohio State University in Columbus in 2003. Dennis has spent the past decade studying smoke alarm technology.

"I thought a smoke alarm was just a smoke alarm," Dennis said. "I've since learned there's a huge difference. Unfortunately, I learned that difference after Andrea's fire where five kids died."

Just like the fatal fire on Digby, the UC students canvassing the rental properties found some residents had disabled their ionization detectors because they said they were a nuisance, sounding often from harmless cooking.

While Tassell called the results of the survey "very disappointing," Garner and Dennis weren't surprised.

"It's been two years to comply with this," Dennis said. The landlords "are jeopardizing lives out there knowingly... They're just rolling the dice with their (tenants') lives."

For Ellen Garner's mother, the law comes down to this: "It's almost like a seatbelt in a car. You have to have the tools in place before the emergency happens," she said.

City not tracking compliance

Garner and Dennis said the city needs to make sure landlords install the detectors. The ordinance requires landlords to report to the fire department with each new lease and annually that they they have installed and inspected photoelectric detectors in every rental unit. Despite that requirement, a public records request asking for those reports prompted the following response from the department: "We do not maintain such documentation."

District Fire Chief Fred Prather is in charge of inspections for the fire department and said he does not know how many rental units in Cincinnati had complied with the law.

City council member P.G. Sittenfeld, who pushed for the ordinance alongside the parents in 2013, said the fire department depends on tenants to complain before firefighters then inspect and confirm if landlords failed to install the new detectors. If they do, they face a misdemeanor charge.

But many tenants, especially students, say they are afraid of complaining to their landlords.

"Landlords hold the one thing you need over your head: a place to live," said Faith Diehl, a UC student living off campus. Her apartment has ionization smoke detectors. With only two units in her building, her landlord has been out of compliance for 18 months.

Awareness of the law is key

Many tenants are unaware of the ordinance. "I didn't even know there were different kinds of smoke detectors," said Diehl.

The fire department and the city of Cincinnati say they are working hard to spread the word about the new law. But with no one tracking landlord compliance, there's no way to know if the law is working.

Garner and Dennis agree that leaving the responsibility in tenants' hands is not enough. "It's a community responsibility. You shouldn't wait for somebody to die to address the problem," Dennis said.


If you would like to have your home or rental unit inspected for compliance with fire safety codes, submit an Inspection Request form with the City of Cincinnati's Fire Department.

Contributors: University of Cincinnati Journalism Department and Electronic Media Division students Chandler Bonn, Victoria Bower, Joanna Branch, Jamie Gregory, Paloma Ianes, Zachary Muller, Faith Tucker, William Wolkoff.

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