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Making rental housing safer in the event of a fire

Jay Hanselman

Ohio landlords often take older homes near college campuses and turn them into student housing.  That sometimes involves converting an attic area into a small bedroom.  

But usually the only way in and out is a set of stairs, and that could cause a problem if there is a fire in the building.  

Some Ohio lawmakers are working to change the state's building and fire codes to address the issue.  The proposed legislation would require a second way out.  

Ellen Garner and Chad Kohls lost their lives in a 2013 fire near the University of Cincinnati.  Both were trapped in a third story bedroom when the blaze started on the second floor of the building in University Heights.  The way out was the stairway and it was filled with smoke.  The other option was to jump out a window onto the pavement below.  That window was also blocked by an air conditioner.  Both died from smoke inhalation trying to get out using the stairway.

“If we refuse to act and don’t make some improvements, then we’re going to have to be prepared to accept more fatalities in the future,” said Ann Garner, Ellen’s mother.  “Because the conditions that killed Chad and Ellen still are around today.”

The legislation pending in the Ohio House and Senate would require a separate means of egress for all dwelling areas above the second story of a residential rental property.  Currently such homes that have more than two stories are not required to have any secondary means of egress.

“When a fire breaks out, you have moments to make a decision on how you will escape,” said State Senator Bill Beagle in a statement.  “Every second matters and ensuring you have an escape plan in place is critical.”

The second way out could include a chain ladder fastened near a window that costs about $250 dollars.  

The Ohio lawmakers working on the legislation say they hope to have it approved by the end of the year.

The Cincinnati Fire Department offers a free inspection of older housing in the city that is being used for off-campus student housing.