After a month-long process, the Ann Arbor City Council will consider whether or not to pass an ordinance to ban porch couches tonight. This vote was originally scheduled for the middle of August, but City Council purposefully delayed the vote to ensure that students would have the opportunity to weigh in on and learn about a measure that is important to them.
The goal of the porch couch ban ordinance is to reduce the risk of exterior fires and to thereby create a safer environment for residents and our housing stock. The ordinance achieves this goal by prohibiting the outdoor storage of upholstered furniture designed for indoor use. This prohibition furthers our goal of reducing risk to persons and property not because couches are inherently dangerous, but because they are a large source of fuel for fires. Storing large flammable objects on porches is inherently dangerous.
So why is a piece of furniture that is safe indoors hazardous when stored out doors?
Fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat to burn. These three elements, plus time, allow a fire to grow. Indoors, a couch is benign because the oxygen element is limited and there is greater likelihood of detection — via smoke alarms, fire alarms, occupants and/or fire suppression systems. Outdoors, a couch is a latent hazard because the oxygen element is unlimited and detection depends upon bystander observation. Based on this information from fire safety experts it is irrefutable that a porch couch is at least a theoretical hazard. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether it is a hazard in the real world.
According to records provided by Ann Arbor Fire Marshal Kathleen Chamberlain, since 2000, there have been three indoor fires in the city of Ann Arbor the origin of which has been attributed to upholstered furniture. Over that same period, there have been 93 outdoor fires in Ann Arbor that are attributable to upholstered furniture. Porch couch fires are not some minor risk that prompts a knee-jerk, nanny-state solution. They are a real-world problem that requires action.
Couch porch fires in Ann Arbor have resulted in millions of dollars in damages, many injuries and, tragically, one fatality. As most of you know, there was a house fire in April on State Street and a man died. He was a student much like you. His name was Renden Lemasters. The exact circumstances of this fire are still under investigation, but there are some certainties: The massive fire started on the porch and there was a couch on the porch.
I was once a student here at the University. I know that many of a student’s best memories and strongest relationships are forged with friends, idling away the hours on a porch couch, talking politics, relationships, sports, classes, etc. I know that these times are an important part of the college experience.
This proposed ordinance will not change any of that.
What it will do is ensure that tenants, occupants, management companies and property owners all are required to keep upholstered indoor furniture indoors.
So pool your resources, hit up your parents, find some outdoor furniture, then sit on your porch and enjoy yourselves. Be a college student and live and learn. We are delighted that you are here and hope that you enjoy your time in Ann Arbor — in fact, we hope you’ll decide to stay after graduation. But whether you are here for a semester or, like me, decide to make Ann Arbor your home, it is our obligation on Council to ensure that everyone in the city is safe from reasonably preventable and non-obvious hazards. That’s why I hope that Ann Arbor will join cities such as Kalamazoo, Boulder, Madison, West Fayette and, yes, Columbus, in taking this moderate step to prevent unnecessary and tragic loss, injury and death.
Christopher Taylor is a City Council member representing the Third Ward.