Fire Alarm

Snafus with the fire code leave a couple burned.

It was to be a dream home for their retirement years, a modest-sized adobe dwelling they would build themselves on 20 acres in rural Pima County. But for Linda and Fred McKee, the experience has been a nightmare. Their new house was completed months ago, but they still can't move in.

It all started simply enough. After buying a stock set of plans from a local company, in April of last year Fred McKee obtained a building permit from Pima County's Development Services Department. He paid almost $1,400, and was given a checklist of items that had to be followed during the construction process.

But two things unknown to McKee would cause him serious problems over a year later. First, he says a notice that should have been attached to the checklist informing him he had to meet the requirements of his local fire district wasn't there. Second, the company he purchased the plans from was mistakenly listed as the applicant for the permit.

Unaware of these errors, the McKees slowly began to build the house with the assistance of subcontractors. Then two more things happened of which they knew nothing at the time. In August, officials of the Rincon Valley Fire District called the plans company, since it was listed as the applicant, and informed it that the project had to meet the standards of the adopted fire code. Because there is no fire hydrant in the area of the house, those requirements call for either a sprinkler system inside the home or storage of 10,000 gallons of water on the property. The company, however, never passed that message on to the McKees.

At the same time, the fire district placed a hold order on the future final inspection for the house. That meant the construction work could be completed, but the home couldn't be occupied until the fire code requirements were met.

Ignorant of their worsening situation, the McKees kept on building. Inspectors from Pima County, not knowing of the hold order either, would occasionally stop by to check on the work being done, and everything seemed in order.

Once, Lee Bucklin, fire marshal of the Rincon Valley Fire District, came by and talked to Fred McKee.

Memories of this conversation differ considerably. McKee says Bucklin asked a few questions about the house but didn't say anything about the fire code requirements. Bucklin, however, recalls he inquired whether sprinklers were going to be installed and was told they weren't. Then, he says, "I told him about the code and that without a sprinkler system, he would have to meet the code in another way."

McKee maintains, "Bucklin never said that." Then he adds, "It ticks me off that the fire marshal didn't tell me [about the code requirements] when he was on the site."

Still oblivious to their pending problem, the McKees continued to build. By December the roof had gone onto the house, making it much more difficult to install a sprinkler system.

By June of this year, the project was nearing completion. The couple's finances were drained, but the house was finished. They arranged to rent their present home and started making plans to move. Fred McKee then asked Pima County officials to perform a final inspection of the house.

Reflecting now, he says, "I figured everything was fine because all the previous inspections had been OK'd. I paid the electrician, the plumber and the mechanical people, and thought the County inspectors would come out, approve the house, and we'd move in."

But then reality struck. County officials notified McKee they couldn't do a final inspection because of the fire district hold on the process concerning the fire code requirements.

At first McKee wanted to know: "What fire code?" After finding out what had happened, he met with representatives of the district. They told him he could either retrofit the house with a sprinkler system, install a swimming pool with at least 10,000 gallons, or erect water tanks of the same capacity.

McKee quickly sought bids for these options, and learned a fire sprinkler system would cost over $18,000. If it had been installed when the home was still under construction, he estimates the price at $2,000.

The other alternatives weren't financially attractive, either. The swimming pool was prohibitively expensive, and the cost of the tanks almost $7,000.

The McKees say they can't afford the extra expense. "We're both retired schoolteachers who had the project all planned out," Fred McKee explains, sitting in the dining room of the friend's house they are now sharing. "But we're exhausted as far as money goes."

Fire district officials offered to give the couple one year to comply with the requirements, but the McKees decided to undertake a three-step appeals process instead. Fred McKee believes he shouldn't be forced into doing anything because of the mistakes beyond his control. But, he says, if they have to do something, he thinks it's only reasonable for them to install one 5,000 gallon storage tank. The fire code, he points out, requires 10,000 gallons for up to a 3,600-square-foot house. So, he reasons, their home of half that size should only need half as much water.

Fire marshal Bucklin disagrees. "The tank size," he says, "is based on fire flow requirements. There are terrible roads in the area and we hardly have time to get water tenders there. We do need the water not only to protect the property, but fire fighters as well if one of them should go inside the structure."

Bucklin also points out that there are three other homes on the rough dirt road the McKees built on, two of which have sprinklers; the other has water tanks. But the bottom line, he insists, is "it's a safety issue."

The frustrated couple's appeal of the code criteria has been denied once already by the fire district. Their next hope is the fire chief. After that they have the option of appealing to a three-member citizen board appointed by the district.

This sorry and unusual situation has at least resulted in one change to governmental procedures. According to Bill Jones, chief building official for Pima County, his agency will no longer place fire district holds on final inspections. The Rincon Valley Fire District might not like that, but Jones says it's the way things are going to be.

Meanwhile, the new house sits vacant and Fred McKee tries not to fume too much over what has happened. But, he says, "We got left out of the loop. The procedures for both the fire district and Pima County were in error, but they deny that. We spent all of our money, then were told we couldn't move in. We need a place to live. We have two homes, but we're homeless."