On New Year’s Day, a fire broke out in a large, residential apartment building in the small city of Holyoke in western Massachusetts. The fire was devastating. The building was destroyed and three people were killed. But unlike the warehouse fire that recently caught national attention in Oakland, CA, the building in the Holyoke fire was a properly zoned apartment building and even had a fire alarm system that had been professionally installed in 2011. So what happened? Did the alarm system function, and if not, why?
Thanks to reporting by Greg Saulmon of The Republican, the answers to some of these questions are starting to become clear.
According to Saulmon’s article, the fire marshal has determined that the cause of the fire was a faulty electrical outlet on the third floor, which sparked an electrical fire. Once the fire started, the fire alarms in the building did activate and sound a warning to residents. However, it would seem as though the connection between the building’s alarm system and the monitoring company did not function. While investigators haven’t made an official determination as to what exactly broke down between the alarm system and the monitoring company, a conversation with Brian W. O’Connor, who installed the system, gives us a clue.
They system consisted of an array of smoke detectors, horn/strobe units, carbon monoxide detectors, pull-stations in the building’s two lobbies, and a central control panel. When functioning properly, the system would alert residents to a fire as well as notify the fire department. This would occur any time one of the smoke detectors in the system was activated (these were separate from smoke detectors in the units, so a little smoky cooking wouldn’t trigger an all out evacuation).
They building’s alarm system connects to a central monitoring station operated by a third party, which then relays the alert to a local fire department. These kinds of systems can also be connected directly to a local fire department, but many building owners prefer going to third-party monitoring companies since they can provide more detailed information about the location of a fire.
In the case of the Holyoke fire, the company that did the installation of the fire alarm system was cut out of the maintenance and monitoring plan in 2012. Another company picked up the contract, but that company then went out of business. A third company then picked up the maintenance and monitoring duties, but it is unclear which company, if any, held those responsibilities at the time of the fire.
This changing of hands of the service contract, as well as at least one sale of the building, may bear some responsibility for the fire alarm system’s failure. Quoting Jennifer Mieth, a Holyoke fire official, “Owners are required to maintain the systems and have them annually inspected by a fire alarm company… There is no requirement for ongoing inspections by the fire or building departments.” And therein lies the rub. Many building owners don’t realize that it is up to them to make sure that the system is tested and maintained regularly.
These recent fires in Oakland and now Holyoke illustrate the importance of commercial and residential fire alarm systems, particularly in larger buildings. But just installing the system isn’t enough. It’s up to building owners to make sure that the system is regularly maintained and monitored by a reputable company. That is the only way to ensure that when the system is needed in an emergency situation, it actually functions the way it is supposed to and gives the fire department the best possible chance to save property, and lives.