ASSIGNMENT 13: Fire Danger

(WEAU) -- Hannah Fredrickson has been through an experience that no one wants to go through.

"I had too many candles burning because that's an obsession of mine," she said.

Fredrickson, a student, had a small fire in her apartment. Even though it could have been better prevented, it was a wake-up call to the dangers of a fire.

"If there was a fire I would be a little nervous if our doorways were blocked," she said. "I know we have an emergency ladder to go out the balcony and stuff but it's really high and it would be scary."

And it begs the question, especially for students living in older places, how safe their own apartment is.

"We're just doing a couple cosmetic updates to the home, giving it a little bit of TLC, kitchen facelift, bathroom facelift, floor," said Jason Gripentrog.

He deals with safety everyday. He owns about 60 properties; many of them are places that students call home.

"When tenants do bring a particular issue to my attention, if it's a particular issue with an electric outlet or something, it's important we get on top of it right away," he added.

He does semi-annual inspections and says he follows the law requiring smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and carbon monoxide detectors.

"I know in this business complacency can get the best of us and landlords tend to leave those items not addressed, but it's important to get on top of any kind of safety things that might crop up," he said.

There are two different agencies that inspect student rentals: the fire department and health department.

"As a fire department we are required by the state to do inspections of businesses and apartment units of three or more," said Scott Burkart, Deputy Fire Chief with the Eau Claire Fire Department.

Scott Burkart says firefighters inspect businesses and apartment buildings twice each year. They look to make sure smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are working, as well as entry and exit points.

"When we get some snow and ice buildup on buildings, sometimes the secondary exits not used commonly might get frozen up or blocked by snow," he said.

They do not inspect individual apartment units but can do so by request. He says there are certain things you can do regularly to help prevent fires, too.

That includes making sure fire extinguishers are not more than 75 feet away, smoke detector batteries are changed every six months, and have plans to get out in a fire and stay out.

"The likelihood of you surviving once you re-enter that building drops off substantially," he said. "Some of the highest rates of death are people who go back into a building."

Finally, it is the health department that inspects single family homes and duplexes on a complaint basis. They look at problems of all kinds in housing of all types.

"We're looking at housing that might be relatively new to the oldest house in the city," said David Kragness with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

In 2011, he says the department responded to 255 complaints across the county. A fair amount of the complaints came from student rentals.

He says start with a call to the landlord. If that does not work, call the health department.

"I think in general we are safe but there are some exceptions out there and we do run into some issues every once in a while," he said. "I think it is important, students and their families, look at properties and make sure they will be safe before they rent it," he added.

And that is good advice for any student. Fires come unexpectedly like the one on Water Street that killed two UW-Eau Claire students in October.

And while prevention and even inspections are not always perfect, both are steps in the right direction.

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Complaint numbers from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department for 2011:

City of Eau Claire: 191
County (no housing code): 45
County (code - Altoona, Augusta, Fall Creek, Fairchild, townships): 19

Total: 255

Intensified Housing for Eau Claire (a program where older homes are surveyed and inspected based on appearance): 281

Rooming Houses (more than 4 unrelated occupants, many are older and it is rare for a home to get this license today): 144

Kragness added the home on Water Street that caught fire had not inspected by the health department at any point nor had any complaints against it.


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