Downtown Cape fires spur safety discussions

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Three downtown fires in the past year -- two of them devastating -- are prompting the Cape Girardeau Fire Department to lobby downtown merchants to install sprinkler systems in their buildings.

At a meeting of Old Town Cape Tuesday night, Cape Girardeau fire chief Rick Ennis and representatives of fire protection and insurance companies informed about a dozen downtown business owners about the importance of fire protection systems such as sprinklers.

Following the major blaze at the Bella Italia restaurant last month, another fire that destroyed Cape Restaurant Supply Co. last August and a recent kitchen fire that caused the evacuation of Buckner Brewing Co., Ennis approached Old Town Cape executive director Tim Arbeiter asking for the meeting.

Ennis told the assembled business owners his aim is to change the paradigm in dealing with fires and help prevent major losses.

Ennis told merchants a fire could end their business, since they don't have the capital of major chains on the city's west side, and even if rebuilt, a new building wouldn't carry the historical significance of many current downtown buildings. And the fire department has it's limits.

"We'll do the best we possibly can, but that can't guarantee saving a building or business," Ennis said.

The fire chief said there were many options for dealing with the situation: rely on the fire department, toughen fire codes and their enforcement, mandate the use of sprinklers. Voluntary installation of sprinklers by merchants over the next five years is another option, which Ennis prefers.

"This is not the fire department or the city telling you that you have to install a sprinkler system," Ennis said. The best type of fire protection, he said, is a sprinkler system.

Representatives from Premier Fire Protection Inc. discussed the basics of sprinkler installation and operation and dismissed some common misperceptions about the systems.

Company representative Jason Hickey said with the systems the potential water damage is much lower than the fire damage would be without them and stressed that the sprinklers are activated individually and rarely go off without a fire being present.

Scott Stanfield of W.E. Walker Insurance told merchants they could get a 25 percent to 50 percent credit on their property premium by installing a system.

"In a few years, you're going to pay for your system," said Stanfield.

But Doc Cain, owner of Port Cape Girardeau, did a quick estimate based on a $2 to $3 per square foot estimate given by Hickey. He acknowledged the benefits of such a system, but still saw problems after estimating his cost at around $20,000.

"You have to ask yourself a question," Cain said. "Where do you get the money to do this?"

Ennis said the fire department would assist business owners in finding funding for the installations, possibly through grants.

335-6611, extension 182

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