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Las Vegas officials to explore changes in apartment fire safety

Local officials are advocating for change following a Review-Journal series about deadly fires at aging apartment complexes in the Las Vegas Valley.

“We need to be far more aggressive,” Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown said.

The Review-Journal found that fires have killed 159 people in the valley since 2008. The lethal blazes have been clustered in areas with older homes and apartments, where current safety measures such as sprinklers and interconnected smoke alarms are not required.

A major hurdle to improving fire safety is that state law does not require existing apartments to adhere to new safety upgrades required under fire codes adopted after the building is constructed. Local governments must get approval from Nevada’s Board of Examiners before they can adopt safety requirements that are more stringent than state statutes.

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian said city officials have been urging state lawmakers to give local jurisdictions more discretion over how to address fire safety and other issues. She said the investigation may help the city articulate why local control is integral.

“We know more what’s happening in our city than sometimes the people in the Legislature do,” said Tarkanian, who represents one of the Las Vegas wards where many residential fires have happened.

State Sen. Tick Segerblom, who will join the county commission in January, said he’s prepared to go to the Legislature to bring about the necessary change.

“In January, or perhaps even sooner, my goal will be to sit down with the (Clark County) fire marshal and hear from him what the possibilities are,” Segerblom said. “If it turns out there is something we need from Carson City, let’s get talking.”

As a commissioner, Segerblom will represent the district that covers the fire-prone Solaire Apartment complex on East Karen Avenue. The complex has caught fire more than 50 times since 2011. Myriam Hernandez Estrada was killed by a fire there in August.

“It doesn’t seem possible there can be that many fires in one area unless something is wrong,” Segerblom said.

Changing state law

Segerblom said county government could offer financial incentives to landlords who retrofit their buildings with improved fire safety equipment. That would not only encourage the practice, it would also help keep the expense of adding the new safety features from being passed on to residents through rent increases.

Brown said the county does not have the staff to regularly inspect every apartment, but land entitlements and business licenses could be a vehicle to keep apartments safe, with larger fines and harsher penalties to punish rule-breakers.

“We as commissioners and city councils have to put far more responsibility on a property owner and property manager,” he said. “We set the standard of public safety. If they’re not willing to meet that, go elsewhere. Go invest somewhere else.”

Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin said the city would hire more fire inspectors “if we had the money.” Tarkanian said the city might lobby the state to provide more funding for fire safety.

Sustained outreach has remained the key, cost-effective tool to empowering residents to protect themselves, city officials said. Las Vegas has sought to make residents aware of hazards through public service announcements, fire demonstrations or inspections, and even offering free pizza to residents who open their homes for fire safety inspections.

“The best we can do is try to educate people,” Coffin said.

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter. Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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