I-TEAM: High-rise fire prompts check of other senior living facilities

Blaze at apartments raises safety questions for similar buildings

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A fire at a high-rise senior living facility on Jacksonville's Southside this week has many people asking how safe such facilities are for senior citizens.

The I-TEAM reviewed inspection reports for 29 high- and mid-rise apartments in Jacksonville that house seniors and disabled adults. (see map below).

Those reports include one for the Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments, where a fire injured five residents and a firefighter, and forced more than 250 residents to evacuate for several days.

The Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments report showed the sprinkler system's fire pump had failed inspection.

Most of the other 28 reports News4Jax combed through show buildings in Jacksonville are in compliance with fire codes.

But the Jacksonville Towers in San Marco had nearly a dozen violations in its most recent inspection in July. Those problems included issues with the sprinkler system, electrical panel, junction box, emergency generator, fire alarm panel and carbon monoxide detectors.

Management at the Jacksonville Towers would not allow News4Jax cameras inside, but managers said crews were working Wednesday to correct the issues from the inspection report. 

A resident, who asked not to be identified, said she does not feel safe living in the towers and that they only started making repairs after the I-TEAM's report about the issues at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments.

“This is the first fire drill that I’ve heard probably in a year,” the woman said.

In eight of the reports, no recent inspections had been completed. Some listed their most recent inspection as far back as 2014.

Many facilities said they assumed the city inspected the buildings every year. A fire department spokesman said that is the goal, but it's not always the reality.

“With over 24,000 businesses that are inspected annually, sometimes we fall behind on some of these, but make no mistake about it, since the definition is routine, we will get to you,” Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department spokesman Tom Francis said.

The city inspects facilities that require such inspections to approved for state licenses, like the Department of Children and Families.

But private facilities, like many housing complexes the I-TEAM reviewed, are not required by law to be inspected each year.

Residents still awaiting word

According to a website for the Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments, safety checks are being done in every apartment to make sure they are safe before residents return home.

In the meantime, many displaced residents remain at the Faith United Methodist Church, where the Red Cross has set up a shelter.

“While this process is taking longer than we would like, resident safety is our top priority and we want to ensure each apartment undergoes a thorough safety evaluation,” apartment officials wrote online. “By day’s end, we hope to have identified the apartments that can be reoccupied in the short-term, some as soon as tomorrow.”

Management set up a resident relocation team that met individually with residents at the shelter.

“Residents whose apartments were minimally affected will be able to return to their own homes soon, while those whose apartments were more seriously affected will be transferred to another apartment within the building,” management wrote. “Management will assist every resident with their return home or temporary accommodations -- no resident will be homeless.”

Managers said a local agency provided $200 gift cards for every resident, and they were all helped with transportation to purchase what they need until they can return home.

Managers will provide dinner for residents at the church shelter Thursday.

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