Crews say smoke damage could have been much worse

ROCHESTER, Minn. – Fire crews in Rochester were called to a high rise condo building around 10:45 p.m. Sunday for reports of smoke. Crews learned that it was coming from a light bulb left on in a closet stacked full of blankets.

They said things could have been catastrophic if no one had spotted the smoke.

The report of smoke was not what concerned Rochester fire crews, but where the call was coming from.

“It’s actually a common call,with very little damage. What’s significant is, this is the only high rise in town that’s not completely sprinkler installed,” said Larry Mueller, Assistant Fire Marshal with the Rochester Fire Department.

Rochester Towers was built during a time when codes were not in place. Half a century later, they have added the equipment in common areas and mechanical rooms, but individual units still do have sprinklers.

“High rise fires, by themselves are hard to fight, and usually result in either injuries or death. The manpower alone that we’d need, just to move the equipment up to the upper levels is high. Our ladder would typically, only reach the seventh floor,” Mueller said.

Sprinkler systems may not have been installed in the buildings as quickly as they were without Ollie Mertz. Mertz worded 42 years with the Rochester Fire Department and 25 of them, he was the chief. During that time, he was the one pushing to get sprinkler systems into area buildings.

“You come up with something new like that, and it’s going to cost people money. It’s always hard to do it,” Mertz said.

He said it was challenging to persuade the city, and even the state to pass ordinances requiring sprinklers, but the hard work paid off.

“I had all of that information in front of me and documented it. I didn’t just say it, I could prove it. When you’re in an argument, you can win them pretty good that way,” Mertz said.

“After we passed our sprinkler ordinance, I received letters from about 13 states and 200 cities that were interested in the same thing. We sent information to all cities. They were thinking the same thing as I was, except I did something about it, Mertz said.

Because of his knowledge on the topic, many of those places copied the ordinance word-for-word.

The fire and smoke damage is estimated at $500. Mueller said they will continue to work with Rochester Towers to make sure the fire protection is adequate.

Mertz said a local hotel manager tells him that many guests ask if the hotel has sprinklers before they even book the room. He said that was unheard of not long ago.

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