What to do in a high rise fire emergency

Investigator: sprinklers a "vital tool"

SAN ANTONIO – City leaders said Tuesday they plan to scrutinize building code requirements to determine whether buildings exempt from requiring sprinkler systems should remain so.

This comes the same day a sixth life was claimed by a fire at the Wedgwood senior living apartments on the 6700 block of Blanco Road on Sunday.

Seventeen people remained hospitalized Tuesday, while city leaders were still trying to reach 37 unaccounted for residents.

In 2012, the city adopted building codes requiring sprinkler systems, but Wedgwood was grandfathered in and therefore exempt.

"We're going to reevaluate our codes and see what we do to move forward," said Diane Pfeil, the city manager. "We will strongly suggest they go above the code if that's what is needed," Mayor Tim Howell added.

The Bexar County fire marshal is leading the investigation into what sparked the fire.

Chief investigator Chris Lopez says sprinkler systems are "one of the most vital tools" in fire safety.

"If they had sprinkler systems in place, it wouldn't have taken that long," Lopez said. "Matter of fact, the fire would have grown to that first sprinkler head and it would have activated."

Many people tend to ignore smoke alarms when staying in hotels or large apartment complexes, often assuming it's a false alarm. That, says Lopez, is a crucial mistake.

He advises you make sure you locate and can easily access an emergency exit any time you are inside a high rise building.

"I will actually physically walk down the hallway to the nearest exit, and I will count the number of doors to that exit," Lopez said.

That way, he can know his whereabouts should he be forced to crawl on hands and knees in case of a fire, he says.

Familiarize yourself with the kinds of fire safety precautions that are in place where you are staying- and test them, if possible.

"The smoke detectors, the alarms- the types of alarms. Are they hardwired? Are they battery? Are they independent," said Lopez.

If you are unsure whether an alarm is sounding a real emergency, call management. If you do not get a response, evacuate immediately.

Lopez says if you smell or see smoke, go down at least four floors, if not out of the building entirely.

If you are unable to leave your room or unit, call 911 and place a towel under the door and a wet towel over your nose and mouth.

As the investigation into the cause of the fire continues, beginning Wednesday all medications belonging to the Wedgwood fire victims will handled by apartment management.

The medications collected by first responders had previously been gathered at Castle Hills City Hall.

All residents who have not been in contact with city leaders are asked to call 210-342-2341.

Castle Hills building inspectors expect to have a determination on the safety of the structure by the end of the week.

Two of the five victims killed have been identified as Karen Betz, 74, and Jose Gonzales, 73.

The four remaining victims were all over the age of 70.

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