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One year later: Condo residents wait for answers, accountability from the city and fire department (video)

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A small apartment fire on Oct. 3, 2022, could have had a routine emergency response. But for many residents of the 1200 Riverside Drive Condos, that fire—and the response by the Reno Fire Department—upturned their lives, forced them to move and has them on the hook for thousands of dollars in damages. 

More than a dozen residents are still unable to live in their units.

The complex consists of two 11-story buildings with separate entrances. Each tower has 25 apartment units on floors three to 11 and parking garages on the first two floors. Many residents are older—in their 70s, 80s and 90s. 

A cooking fire broke out on the 11th floor in one residence. Water from fire hoses and the tower’s sprinkler system inundated one of the buildings when responders put out the fire in the unit. 

The response rendered most of the building unlivable for more than a year. The water to put out the fire damaged most of the building. As many as 17 of those units are still uninhabitable from the water damage.

“One thing that a lot of people think is that it was from the sprinklers,” said Ronda Theisen, president of the 1200 Riverside Drive Community Association. “One sprinkler head blew on the 11th floor. That was it. All of this damage is from the fire hoses as applied by the Reno Fire Department.”

The city won’t respond

Theisen said she has been battling the City of Reno and the Reno Fire Department for basic information about the incident. She was only able to obtain answers by filing public records requests.

The city won’t respond to her or the residents. She said some residents are even fearful of retaliation by city officials.

“Legal action has been threatened in relation to this incident preventing the City from discussing the response actions taken,” City of Reno spokesperson Landon Miller said. “However, the City of Reno’s Fire Prevention team has been working closely with the building representatives at 1200 Riverside on reviewing the incident and identifying improvements in the facility to mitigate future fires or life safety hazards.”

Theisen said this was not true.

“I am the president of the Association and the only ‘building representative,’” she told This Is Reno. “The only other person who can represent us would be our management company but neither they nor I have been contacted by Reno Fire.” 

Despite two requests, Miller did not identify who at the city met with whom at the association, when and what was discussed.

“we’ve been hit with a 600% increase in our insurance premium with a quadrupling of the deductible.”

Miller said the residents are on the hook for the water damage.

“This is not a Fire Department function,” he said. “Following a fire, property owners file a claim with their insurance provider for any damage to their property. During that process, they will document any damage sustained to their property.”

The residents have to cover the costs of the damage and the expenses of living somewhere else while condos are being repaired. 

“The [homeowners] association’s insurance is covering most of the cost of the repairs, but some unit owners have individual expenses they are paying,” Theisen said. “I’m out of pocket about $15,000 because I didn’t have enough insurance coverage to take care of a year’s worth of living away.”

The residents are also now facing a massive insurance premium increase.

“Because the insurance loss has exceeded $4,000,000 and may approach $5,000,000—nearly all due to water loss exacerbated by Reno Fire’s chaotic response—we’ve been hit with a 600% increase in our insurance premium with a quadrupling of the deductible,” Theisen said. “I know of one owner who is being forced to take out a reverse mortgage to pay the special assessment we were forced to impose to get through to the end of the year.”

Units have since been sold and placed on the market for sale.

Fire Chief Dave Cochran said last year a complete survey of water damage wasn’t included in the report Theisen received by filing a records request because “that’s not something we typically report on. We use water to put the fire out, so that’s kind of a natural consequence of our response. This response was normal in that respect.”

Theisen said the fire hoses caused most of the damage, but Cochran said the tower’s sprinkler system “could” have caused the excess damage.

“It’s not just the water that we apply; it’s also the sprinkler system in the building,” he said. “The sprinkler system operated as designed. … When it’s activated, you now [have] filled the whole system with water. So even when the fire’s out, and you shut the system down, the whole system has to drain, so that could have led to additional water damage.”

‘We looked like chumps’

Theisen said she made multiple attempts to get answers about the fire department’s handling of the situation but was repeatedly ignored by numerous city officials. Only two council members—Jenny Brekhus and Naomi Duerr—have been to the tower to see what occurred, Theisen said.

“Nothing really has come of it,” she said. She’s also repeatedly appeared in front of the Reno City Council and said she has mostly been ignored. 

One record she obtained under Nevada’s Public Records Act was a video recording of Reno Fire Department officials discussing the fire response. That video was an after-action review of the department’s response to the fire. It reveals that the fire department couldn’t find a water source for fire hoses, among several problems raised by firefighters about their response. 

“It was not the best moment for the RFD, for me and my crew. It was a real shitty feeling.”

“To quote Mike Tyson, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’” Reno Fire’s Roger Mooney said in the video. 

Firefighters noted significant problems they encountered. For nearly 20 minutes, they could not find which water line to connect to, dispatchers gave them incorrect information, and they did not know how many floors the tower had. 

“Without having any information on the building, I completely lost my ability to maintain that 10,000-foot level,” one firefighter said. “I lost sight of the big picture there … and it took me a while to regain it.”

Firefighters tried to connect to one water supply, but it was the wrong one. There was no water pressure when they connected to the pipe. 

“I am not proud to say it took us 19 minutes to establish water supply to fire-attack as we

had to physically search for the connections,” an RFD official noted in a written report after the incident. “In the end, we guessed wrong and plumbed the FDC supplying the garage sprinklers first. When water did not make it to fire attack, we then plumbed the test outlet, a single port, to finally get the standpipe filled. It was not until after the event we found the correct connections hidden behind junipers.”

A firefighter said not finding the proper water source created chaos.

“We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off once they told us they didn’t have water,” he said. “The recovery didn’t go that well.”

“I guess we’re just winging this,” another firefighter said. “We looked like chumps. It was not the best moment for the RFD, for me and my crew. Pretty stressful. It was a real shitty feeling.”

Another firefighter said there were no floor plans for the building, and Mooney discussed communication breakdowns. A dispatcher did not understand a request for a ladder meant a new fire truck was being requested.

“I quickly ran out of manpower, and that should have been a key factor to me … to start calling more resources in, to ask for another upgrade,” Mooney said. There were no more personnel available to help with the response as a result. 

Mooney also said there was confusion about how many floors the tower had—11 or 12.

Officials said, however, the response successfully put out the fire.

“Every incident is an opportunity to gain experience and learn,” the city’s Miller said. “The [fire] department regularly emphasizes training on communications and managing emergency incidents. The department also reviewed and updated the information resources available to personnel responding to an emergency scene.”

Theisen said she is still waiting for answers—and accountability.

“I’m a big fan of first responders, including the fire department,” she told This Is Reno. “[The firefighters] did everything they could, but they were not equipped by their administration. This is something the fire chief and city manager, in my opinion, need to answer for.”

Theisen, a retired prosecutor, said she moved to Reno years ago after she saw a newspaper feature on the Reno River Walk. 

“I looked at that, and I said, ‘When I retire, that’s where I want to go,’” she said. “‘I want to go to Reno. I want to live by the river, and I want to live in a condo so I don’t have to worry about maintenance. It hasn’t worked out that way, at least for the last year.”

UPDATE: This story was updated to include Theisen’s response that contradicts the city spokesperson’s statement that it was “working closely” with residents after the indicent.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.

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