City staff voice safety concerns on single stairway proposal for multifamily buildings in Austin

July 4, 2024

Proposal for single stairways in multifamily buildings

City staff have raised concerns over a proposal to allow single stairways in multifamily buildings in Austin.

As reported by Austin Monitor, this change, initially approved by the City Council in May, would permit multifamily projects up to six stories to have a single staircase.

The goal is to foster the development of smaller-scale complexes with family-sized apartments.

Similar initiatives have been adopted in cities like Seattle and New York City.

However, a memo from Development Services Director José Roig, Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker, and EMS Chief Robert Luckritz, dated June 26, urges the city to uphold its current standards as prescribed by the International Building Code.

The memo highlights that technical code and first responder experts reviewed Austin’s single stairway amendment and found potential safety risks to occupants and first responders if the code were amended.

Safety risks and recommendations

The memo elaborates on the risks associated with a single staircase, noting it poses an escape hazard in emergencies.

It references a national proposal to allow such buildings, which was rejected by the International Code Council Technical Committee due to the danger it would pose to occupants and first responders.

Austin’s limitations include a lack of ladder trucks—only 13 in the area, with two near Williamson County and one on the Hays County border—and inadequate water infrastructure in residential areas.

Additionally, the memo underscores that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends two exits for evacuation in active shooter situations.

In emergencies, the city’s Fire Department designates one stairwell for evacuation and one for firefighting operations.

Despite support from architects and builders, who argue that the change will facilitate the construction of smaller complexes with larger apartments, the memo suggests the new regulations could increase construction costs due to the need for safer elevators and staircases.

Comparisons with other cities

“Austin is not facing the same population density challenges as Seattle and New York,” the memo reads.

“This allows Austin time to seek solutions for more middle-scale density with fewer life safety implications.”

The feedback from the city’s public safety departments is part of an ongoing process, with the City Council set to review the changes for potential adoption or rejection.

Council Member Chito Vela, who sponsored the resolution, acknowledged the memo’s concerns and looks forward to addressing them.

He stated: “I appreciate the safety concerns staff outlines in its memo about allowing single stair apartment buildings and look forward to discussing and addressing them.

“As staff mentions, multiple US cities safely and successfully allow single stair construction with appropriate safeguards for fire protection and accessibility.”

Upcoming discussions and decisions

The city’s Planning Commission is scheduled to discuss the proposed code change at its meeting on July 9.

The ongoing debate reflects the complexities of balancing development needs with safety considerations in urban planning.

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