Santa Maria Needs Sprinklers To Improve Fire Safety

A fallen window screen on the 10th floor is the only exterior sign that a small fire ignited Tuesday night at the Santa Maria del Mar retirement home.

Sister Rebecca Rutkowski looked at the damage, and realized it could have been a lot worse. "Our residents didn't panic," she said. "The staff was here. Everything was handled very smoothly. And I think that is why today things are back to normal."

The Catholic Diocese oversees the Santa Maria. It's risk manager is A.J. Scardino. He credited the Biloxi Fire Department for not letting the stove fire get out of hand. "This structure does have a stand pipe system in it," he said. "And the fire department did use the stand pipe system."

But Santa Maria doesn't have a sprinkler system, because it was built before building codes required that sort of fire safety equipment. That will change. Biloxi fire officials have told the Catholic Charities Housing Association it has to put sprinklers in the 13 story retirement complex behind me. And it has to do it soon.

According to Biloxi Fire Chief David Roberts, "We want the building sprinklered with an automatic alarm system just to take care of these fires."

The housing association has advertised for bids to do the sprinkler work, both at Santa Maria and at the Villa Maria retirement home in Ocean Springs. Each project will cost in excess of $250,000. Scardino said at this point in time, "Sister and the committee is working on refinancing the structure in order to come up with that quantity of money. And then the big question is, how do you pay for it."

That question could be answered Jan. 10, 2002, when the Catholic Charities board has a meeting to discuss fire safety at its retirement homes.