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Fire upgrades discussed for apartments

(ran East, South, West)

A Housing Authority official says the Graham Park building is safe. The agency is planning to upgrade the alarm system and is looking for funding for a sprinkler system.

Any time you have a 15-story building filled with elderly and disabled residents, fire safety has to be a top concern.

But at the Graham-Rogall apartment complex, the fire alarm system needs to be replaced and part of the complex _ the tall part _ needs sprinklers.

The four elevators have been beset with maintenance problems. Although people are generally prevented from using elevators to evacuate, elevators could help residents get downstairs quickly in some scenarios.

Housing authority officials stressed that the 486-unit Graham-Rogall complex is safe, but acknowledged that they need to make some long-term upgrades.

Michael Marshall, deputy executive director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which owns the complex, said the agency plans to replace the fire alarm system soon and is looking for the money to install sprinklers in Graham Park, the 15-story building at 305 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S. The back part of the complex, the 11-story Rogall building, has a sprinkler system.

"The big issue for us is that Rogall has sprinklers and Graham does not," Marshall said.

"We do have a fire alarm system and there's literally a fire station that's a block and a half away. It's not a critical situation. But it's not the best situation either and we'd like to improve it," he added.

St. Petersburg fire inspector Richard A. Pashkow said that "as far as safety, I think it's relatively safe." He said the Housing Authority has been "Johnny on-the-spot," in responding quickly to his suggestions. For example, the authority replaced 68 smoke detectors virtually immediately when it was discovered they weren't working.

But he said he has told Housing Authority officials they will need to replace the alarm system in Graham Park, and he intends to tell them soon that the building codes require them to install sprinklers too.

"We'd all love to have Graham fully sprinklered," added another fire inspector, Larry McGevna. "That's a fireman's best friend."

Sharon Collins, president of Graham-Rogall's residents association, said she believes the building is safe. Michael Schlesinger, the Housing Authority's director of operations, thinks so too. But he acknowledges he has concerns, simply because the building's residents might be difficult to evacuate.

"We do have a special population here," Schlesinger said. "It would be a concern to me that people would not be confused or panicky."

Although the lack of sprinklers and the age of the fire alarm system are concerns, housing and fire officials say Graham-Rogall also has some features that make it safer than many other buildings. Among them: 24-hour security guards, proximity to a fire station, and a system of volunteer "fire captains" who would help their fellow residents evacuate.

Also, paramedics make frequent calls to the building, which means emergency workers are more likely to spot any code violations and get them corrected, said fire Lt. Chris Bengivengo. Since January 1996 emergency workers have gone to the building 1,050 times, mostly for medical emergencies, records show.

When the Graham building was constructed in 1972, building codes did not require the installation of emergency sprinklers, designed to douse the apartments in case of a fire. By the time the Rogall structure was put up five years later, sprinklers were required.

In recent years the code has changed again, and owners of large buildings must put in sprinklers retroactively, although they can install less extensive systems than those required for new buildings, fire officials said.

Marshall said it's likely to be an expensive proposition, well into six figures. "We're trying to get additional funding."

Pashkow said he has alerted the Housing Authority to a problem with the fire alarm system in Graham Park. The building is equipped with smoke detectors as well as a nurse-call switch, which residents can push if they are having a medical emergency. A security guard monitors these alarms on a control panel.

The problem is that the control panel doesn't show which type of alarm has been tripped _ a smoke detector, or an emergency medical switch. Pashkow said the housing authority needs a system that can make that distinction. Housing officials have said the current system probably is too old to be effectively modified.

Pashkow on Thursday led a fire safety meeting with more than 40 residents and staff, urging them to get more volunteer fire captains on each floor, and solidify the building's fire evacuation plans.

In the past year it has not been uncommon for one of the elevators to be out of order. If a fire broke out in one building, the elevators would automatically stop operating. But residents on the first 11 floors can walk between the Graham and Rogall buildings. So even in the case of fire, it might be possible to take the elevators downstairs simply by walking to the other building. If one of the elevators was out of service, that would slow the process.

But the Housing Authority has put more than $170,000 into upgrading the elevators. Collins, for one, said the elevators now seem to be working well.

It is unclear what impact the structural concerns would have on the interest a few developers have purportedly expressed in purchasing Graham-Rogall and turning it into a hotel.

Marshall said the Housing Authority also is considering the possibility of turning Graham-Rogall into a complex that would be mostly for elderly residents, and less for disabled residents, although he stressed the agency would not make any changes unless good homes could be found for everyone. It's not clear if making the facility primarily for elderly residents would work.

"We don't know if there's enough demand for it," he said.

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