Fires nightmare leads to life-saving changes

by: Jaime Valdez, Deputy Fire Marshal Kate Stoller explains the use of pictorials on educational materials that depict the importance of working smoke alarms.

It's been 10 years since an 11-year-old boy set a three-alarm fire in the stairwell of the former Oakwood Park Apartments in Aloha, where he lived.

Three adults and five children were killed in the early morning fire. A dozen more people were injured after jumping from balconies and windows. And 24 families were left homeless.

The June 28, 1996, Oakwood Park fire continues to mark the largest loss of life suffered in a single fire in Washington County. It was the nation's deadliest fire in 1996.

Despite ongoing efforts by Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue to educate the public about the importance of working smoke alarms and partner with apartment complexes to create fire-safe communities, the Oakwood Park tragedy was not the last deadly apartment fire.

In the past decade, the fire district has responded to more than 1,061 apartment fires in which 18 tenants have died, 50 tenants were injured and more than 500 tenants displaced.

Most of the fires share two common factors - no working smoke alarms and a majority of non-English speaking tenants, said Karen Eubanks, fire district spokeswoman.

'The Oakwood Park fire served as a wake-up call for us and spurred on several education efforts so that we wouldn't lose people again,' said Deputy Fire Marshal Kate Stoller, program manager for the fire district's Multi-Family Housing Fire Reduction Program.

'This was the most devastating fatal fire we've had,' Eubanks added. 'I can remember seeing this picture of a father holding the baby girl he had thrown out of a third-story window and thinking this little girl doesn't have a mom anymore.

'There are certain moments in your career when looking back years later you can remember them like it was yesterday. I will never forget what I saw that day.'

With lessons learned in the aftermath of the Oakwood Park fire, the fire district launched an ambitious outreach program and campaign to improve fire safety in apartment complexes in its service area and beyond.

The fire district in 1999 played a key role in getting a residential sprinkler amendment to the Oregon Building Code which now requires sprinklers in new multi-family housing two stories or more in height or more than 16 units on a single floor.

Every city and county served by the fire district adopted the requirement.

'Even though the changes in legislation couldn't force retrofitting, we could draw a line in the sand for new construction,' Eubanks said of the sprinkler appendix.

The district also implemented its Multi-Family Housing Fire Reduction Program in 2003 with the help of an $85,000 grant which funded focus group research with landlords and tenants.

'In speaking with the tenants, we learned that they had the wrong perception of smoke alarms,' Stoller said. 'Tenants didn't know why they needed a smoke alarm and it became clear that we needed to change our message.'

The research also revealed the important role of landlords and property managers in fire safety.

'The landlord role is pivotal,' Stoller said. 'If they are committed to having working smoke alarms and a fire-safe complex, then their tenants will adopt the same commitment.

'We see the managers as our messengers now for our fire safety message.'

Using that information, the fire district designed a program that works collaboratively with local landlords.

As part of the program, the fire district offers life-safety inspections of complexes, quarterly 6½-hour landlord training sessions, a monthly landlord newsletter that includes safety tips and building code updates as well as resources and educational materials in pictorial format for tenants.