Apartment fire prompts questions about safety in Knoxville

Apartment fire prompts questions about safety in Knoxville Section 8 housing

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The fire blocked the building's only exit for second floor residents. The fire blocked the building's only exit for second floor residents.
the day of the fire, we were just stuck up there in the corner," said resident Jerri Thomas. the day of the fire, we were just stuck up there in the corner," said resident Jerri Thomas.
Knoxville Chief Fire Inspector Michael Gillespie says he checks every unit for multiple accessible door and window exits, working smoke detectors in every bedroom and common area. Knoxville Chief Fire Inspector Michael Gillespie says he checks every unit for multiple accessible door and window exits, working smoke detectors in every bedroom and common area.

By HAYLEY HARMON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - How safe is Section 8 housing in Knoxville? Does it meet fire code?

A number of Section 8 residents want to know the answer to those questions after a young mother and her baby barely escaped a fire that destroyed their apartment in South Knoxville.

They almost didn't make it out because their only exit from the second floor was blocked by the fire.

6 News spoke to Knoxville's Community Development Corporation on what is being done to ensure the safety of residents placed in these properties.

It was a terrifying morning last December for Jerri Thomas, running out of her burning apartment with her baby Eli, only to get trapped.

The fire blocked the one and only exterior staircase, stranding them and other residents until firefighters could put out the blaze.

She's always been concerned about that single staircase in the Southmont Apartments, and wants to know if her home met fire code.

"We've all talked about it, like what are we going to do if there's a fire? We only have one way up and one way down. And then of course the day of the fire, we were just stuck up there in the corner," said Thomas.

The Knoxville Fire Marshal's office says yes, Section 8 housing does meet fire code, and they work hand in hand with KCDC to ensure that it does.

Whether or not they're up to code has to do with the year the housing was built.

The Fire Marshal's office says the complexes in Section 8 housing in Knox County are not subject to the same fire code.

Each building has to meet the requirements of the fire code that was in place the year that particular building was constructed.

All complexes are checked for fire code compliance during construction.

In the case of Thomas' residence, that single staircase met code for that size building when it was built.

The only time the fire marshal can make a landlord make structural changes, like number of staircases, is when a complex has to be renovated or repaired.

As for safety features in the event of a fire, KCDC conducts inspections at every complex where the more than 3,800 low-income families who receive Section 8 rental assistance live.

"Whether they meet fire and safety codes, we do rely on the city fire marshal to ensure that those inspections are being done every one or two years on those particular sites," said KCDC Executive Director and CEO Alvin Nance.

Michael Gillespie, Knoxville's Chief Fire Inspector, says he checks every unit for multiple accessible door and window exits, working smoke detectors in every bedroom and common area, and a certified fire extinguisher or one shared between a few units.

"This was done in June of last year, so by June of this year, it'll be time to recertify it," said Gillespie, while checking fire extinguishers at one property.

Since the fire, Jerri Thomas has moved to a new building in the same complex, one with two staircases.

She still disagrees with the grandfathered-in fire code system.

"You don't build a house with only one way in and one way out. There's other ways out," said Thomas.

She feels better knowing KCDC is working to keep her safe.

Inspections are not limited to just one per year; they're also complaint-based.

If a Section 8 resident feels unsafe at any time, they are asked to call KCDC or the Knoxville Fire Marshal's office. They'll send an inspector out immediately.

If problems are found, they will contact the landlord to fix them.

If a resident still wishes to move to a new location, that can also be arranged.

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