Puerto Rico considers stricter fire standards

Strengthened fire-safety requirements for hotels and high-rise buildings here are the focal point of a $4 million package drawn up by Puerto Rico's Gov. Rafael Hern'andez Col'on. In the aftermath of the Dec. 31 fire that killed 96 people in the Dupont Plaza Hotel Casino, Governor Hern'andez Col'on says he wants Puerto Rico to have among the highest fire-safety standards in the United States.

There has been much criticism of the current code and its enforcement in Puerto Rico.

``I don't think the fire would have been averted'' if there had been more safeguards, says the governor, ``but maybe there would have been a smaller loss of life.''

The governor has proposed mandatory installation of automatic sprinklers and smoke detectors in hotels and buildings that rise at least 55 feet above the street; greater authority to the commonwealth fire chief to enforce a strengthened fire code; and increased penalties for noncompliance with fire codes.

The $4 million will be used to upgrade the Puerto Rico fire department with more personnel and equipment.

A blue ribbon commission will study the commonwealth's fire department and laws regulating fire safety here. Members of the committee include fire safety experts from Puerto Rico and the United States.

The fire code in Puerto Rico was drawn up in 1963. But the fire chief has not had the authority to enforce the code, except in the case of new structures, which the department must approve before an occupancy permit will be issued.

Under the new law, the fire chief will have more authority in ordering fire-prevention measures. Over $2.4 million will be used to hire additional inspectors and fire fighters. Annual inspections will be made of all high-risk structures, including high-rises, hotels, hospitals, offices, and public buildings.

After the fire, the San Juan Star reported that a July 1985 inspection of the Dupont Plaza Hotel found that the fire alarm system was not working, no evacuation plan was established, and hotel employees were not familiar with emergency procedures.

The island's fire chief said he did not know if the deficiencies were corrected, and he added that he lacked personnel to carry out inspections. A spokesman for the Dupont Plaza said all deficiencies had been corrected.

A survivor of the blaze told the Monitor that when she stayed at the Dupont Plaza in March 1986, the fire alarm kept going off during the night, until she eventually ignored it.

The Puerto Rican legislature is expected to quickly enact the package proposed by Governor Hern'andez Col'on.

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