Thursday, January 24, 2013

Observations From Afar

 Osaka Japan

As an apartment complex back home was being ravaged by an inferno,  I was happily touring a fire department sub station in Tokyo, Japan. 

Tokyo FD. Mini ladder truck 
Not that I'm superstitious -- even though 25 years ago my Amherst apartment burned down on a Friday the 13th -- but my intuition radar probably should have been buzzing after checking in to our plush hotel room a couple hours earlier:  Room 911.

Even with the restart of UMass and our other institutes of higher education, considering Monday was a holiday, I figured it would be a slow news week in Amherst.  Guess I was wrong.


Once you have experienced a major structure fire up close and personal -- smelled and tasted the acrid stench, listened as the crackling grows deafeningly loud while your field of vision narrows to nothing because of thick black smoke -- not much else in life scares you.

So you simply hope to never meet again. Ever.

The beast paid a call on Rolling Green Apartments early Monday morning.  As with all encounters, it was both uninvited and unexpected. 
 Rolling Green fire. Photo courtesy of Steven O'Toole

And a young man who was majoring in hospitality and tourism management at UMass will never get to put those service skills to use.  Ever.

The investigation will be as thorough as the fire was destructive, maybe more so.  I will be surprised if it turns out the cause can be traced to irresponsible management, as the complex is owned by one of those big corporations with too much to lose.

With Section 8 housing, HUD loans, a large insurance carrier and all the other private sector bureaucracy involved,  safe to say Rolling Green Apartments have been inspected more times than the Town could possibly afford to if rental registration bylaw passes town meeting this spring.

The problem in Amherst with substandard, dangerous rental housing comes not from large professionally managed complexes like Rolling Green, Puffton Village, Mill Valley Estates, or any of the other three complexes on East Hadley Road.  It's largely the lone houses transformed into (illegal) rooming houses that are accidents waiting to happen.

Except of course for Gilreath Manor,  the 14 unit complex out on Hobart Lane,  a sort of white crow that disproves the theory all multi-unit complexes are well run.  A very good reason why all responsible landlords in town should cheer public officials' new found ambition to actually enforce safety and zoning ordinances that have been too long ignored. 

With the same basic design as the Rolling Green complex (with an attic unprotected by fireproof flooring) but made far more dangerous with faulty fire detection and too many students packed into each unit, the Gilreath Manor fire could have been far more murderous had the blaze broken out in the early morning hours rather than high noon.

Town Manager Musante's proposed 2014 budget fortunately includes funding for a "full time fire prevention inspector position;"  but, unfortunately,  no added positions for front line responders like those brave men and women who descended on a killer conflagration early Monday morning.

The Town Manager also touts the weekend "joint patrols" between UMPD and APD which is of course a good thing.  But AFD can't very well partner with UMFD as UMass does not have a fire department.

As I've mentioned before, UMass needs to hire an off campus RA to deal with nuisance party houses before they require APD response, and they should pick up the tab for an additional two AFD first responder positions.

The beast will come calling again.  Because fire is never completely eradicated.  Ever.

Fire victim relief efforts for Rolling Green

Relief efforts for Peshkov family


Anonymous said...

Hi Larry...I agree with 99.1% of what you usually post...except this one...I disagree on the assumption that the bigger complexes have more to lose so their places must be the safest.

Take the Boulders...huge complex, housing students and sec 8 families for the most part, 12 years ago was a tragedy waiting to happen...bad wiring, leaking roofs into the apts, filling up lite fixtures,security doors propped open, party central and a drug dealers paradise..oops did I say this complex was in South Amherst? Well it was, and still is...on more than one occasion AFD and APD was called out there ..but one particular night, my friend and her small children , btw did not fit either rental profile, but rather ended up on the bad end of a divorce from a powerful man...she heard a funny sound coming from the kitchen...she walks past the dining room with the HUGE hole in it from the leaking roof...and watched streaks of blue and yellow arching coming. From behind the stove. She called AFD, and overheard them speaking to one another: " I am tired of coming to this death trap...someone is going to die in this place..look at this..." And outside the apartments entrance were 2 overhead light fixtures which were on, but filling with water. Trash piling up at the other end of the corridor floor . Where was the building owner/manager? Driving thru Amherst in her new BMW convertible. Approximately about 6 months after my friend moved out. That building caught fire.

Maybe things have changed after all these years, but I somehow doubt that. Big corps are looking to save a dime too...turning a blind eye towards code violations.. Howling model apartments.. Only to bait and switch them to overly worn, barely safe rental units.

I am not saying this was or is the case at Rolling Green, but I would not be surprised if something did get unmasked after a thorough investigation..some of .these complexes think they do some landscaping, and slap pain ton the outside, to make them appear safe and clean. Just sain

Walter Graff said...

Sounds to me like the issues of fires and the like in Amherst related to students is more about fire codes and enforcement.

Someone had to bang on doors? Is this the age of the Titanic? What happened to system-wide fire alarms in multi-residential homes. Mandatory sprinkler systems? Anyone have a working detector? Did they even have a detector?

Look at the history of fires in Amherst. Sure some people were killed over the years but statistically the town did no worse than any other with a transient population. Are there dangers in the overcrowding of residents or the poor management of properties? Absolutely. It needs to be addressed too.

Like with many things the Amherst government has their finger up their a$$. While they hire an administrator a week in the school system for another $100,000 a pop, areas of housing enforcement are left as an after thought. Instead of hiring someone to pencils, Amherst hires someone to by them, someone to test them, and someone to wipe off the residue of the eraser. Then realizes they need to also hire someone to clean the eraser shreds off the floors. Then they pat themselves on the back for being so efficient and green. But when shown time and again that the housing system in Amherst is disgraceful, they simply get out the nifty hand broom, lift the rug and sweep it under.

Usually one balances what is needed over what is repetitive and wasteful. But in Amherst waste is good. Too many bookworms are more concerned with getting home to read John Grisham or Homer than actually focus on real-world issues.

As long as Amherst can seem like the educational center of the world no expense is spared. But when it comes to something as simple as proper enforcement, who needs it.

In Amherst's attempt to separate themself from the state and appear as a sleepy town with some pretty cool schools and pricey real estate, they have created a monster who's roar has yet to be heard, but will.

All one needs to do is look at Amherst list of Permit requirements

to see that the PDF that opens about as informative and incomplete as Amherst attitude on safety.

Amherst, the "H" is silent because anything related to housing is hushed.

What a joke Amherst is.

Anonymous said...

You want to fix the AFD staffing issue bring in a private EMS company.

Dr. Ed said...

Amherst could have -- had it wanted to -- required that those units be retrofitted with sprinklers and that would have made things turn out quite a bit differently.

Amherst could have required that the complex be retrofitted with an actual fire detection/alarm system with, at a minimum, heat detectors which would have gone off at less than half the kindling temperature of the rafters they were attached to.

Amherst could have required this -- in an almost identical situation, Northampton DID!!! Whatever 491 Bridge Road is now called -- Meadowbrook, Country Lane Estates, whatever -- that complex has aluminum wiring which means that it was built in the early '70s, possibly a year or two before Rolling Green, and it has building fire alarm systems, with panels and FD connections and the related trimmings.

The town does not have the courage to tell rich & powerful folk that they must spend money on stuff. It is far easier to blame things on the powerless college kids -- but the problem here wasn't a lack of inspections but a lack of rules.

The problem is that the AFD either hasn't enforced all the rules it should or has given waivers it ought not have given, and now a kid is dead as a result. And wasn't there a fatal fire some years back in Colonial Village, in the one building that actually has both sprinklers and a building fire alarm panel system because that was required when it was rebuilt after the fire that was described to me as a fatal one....

I don't say this lightly but a kid is dead because the university didn't care enough and the town didn't have guts enough to require Equity to install a fire detection system (let alone a sprinkler system & attic firestops). Unless he had a bedroom meth lab that exploded (which I highly doubt), there is absolutely no way that anyone can blame this on the kid whose life was tragically cut short.

Larry, think in terms of your little girls, who in a decade will be going to college somewhere, and I have no doubt will be polite young ladies who do everything they are supposed to and all the rest. And they are living in a place like Rolling Green, and one night, the bathroom exhaust fan catches fire (as happened in North Village -- that is the documented cause of that fire) and the next morning you get the phone call that every parent dreads the absolute most -- a request to come identify her body.

The fact that this happened at Rolling Green -- perhaps the best maintained of all the complexes in town -- shows the problem. No amount of maintenance, no amount of inspections, no amount of holding the buildings to the standards in effect when they were built will abate the fact that this is 2013 and not 1973.

It is time for Amherst (and the landlords) to show some good faith here -- to do something FOR the college kids and not just to them. It is long past time to install some decent fire alarm systems in these plywood buildings!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I actually agree with Ed. We need better fire alarms systems in multiple unit buildings.

Dr. Ed said...

Thank you January 24, 2013 at 6:28 PM, but if you aren't AFD, talk to someone who is -- it isn't a question of upgrading the fire alarm systems to today's standards but that in most cases there is absolutely NO fire alarm system of ANY KIND WHATSOEVER!!!

Yes, there is the one-per-unit/floor smoke detector but those are battery powered and not all that much good after 10 years (my training) or 7-8 years (my personal experience) and not only will the landlords (including Rolling Green) not replace them, but a lot of landlords won't even replace the batteries. (I routinely replaced batteries myself, we funded that out of the AHA Maintenance budget with the understanding that the inspector (me) would do some maintenance stuff to balance it out. But I digress....)

So, at best, you have one smoke detector (per unit/floor) that you are presuming that (a) will go off, that (b) the people -- who are ASLEEP -- will hear, and (c) they will react rationally and both evacuate and call the AFD/APD. That's three steps, any one of which might not happen in time.

And in most cases, that is ALL you currently have!!!

This is the problem.

Anonymous said...

ED SAID "The problem is that the AFD either hasn't enforced all the rules it should or has given waivers it ought not have given, and now a kid is dead as a result."

WOW! That is one of the worst, and totally unfounded, accusations you have made Ed. To not even imply, but directly blame them for this young mans death is disgusting. You constantly sink to new lows and show how ignorant you really are.

Dr. Ed said...

Let me be clear -- the AFD's hands may have been tied politically -- so the responsibility may extend beyond them but I have absolutely no problem saying that the young man wouldn't have died had there been a sprinkler system in that building, and likely wouldn't have died had there been an actual fire detection/alarm system.

Like, umm, the one that the City of Northampton not only required to be installed in Meadowbrook but required a NFD officer be physically present on "fire watch" when it wasn't working -- that made the papers, look it up...

The Town of Amherst - we can argue as to who -- decided not to exercise their authority to require these things -- and a kid is dead as a result.

And I really don't give a f*** as to what people think of me, I intend to say this and KEEP saying it -- that boy would not be dead but for either rules not being enforced or waivers having been granted.

And if you are upset about this, wait until you see the letter I write to 255 Franklin Street. I trimmed my conscience more than I ever dreamed I could have to get the damn doctorate, but I am still a Christian and I still have a conscience and this incident has provoked me into doing what is right and not what is easy.

That boy did not have to die -- and no amount of abusive viterol directed at me will change either the fact that he is dead or that he didn't have to be.

Anonymous said...

What is 255 Franklin St?

Anonymous said...

sorry Ed but you already said it very clearly, and without the results of the investigation.

Dr. Ed said...

without the results of the investigation

What kind of investigation do you really need beyond the most basic one of common sense? The state fire marshal is on record as to the effectiveness of sprinklers, I highly doubt that he would dispute the effectiveness of an automated detection/alarm system, and we've all seen (at least) the pictures of that entire roof assembly burning.

So unless the kid had a bedroom meth lab that blew up (and you will note that I put that caveat in the original posting), it really doesn't matter what caused the fire -- even if it was his own fault -- overloaded outlet, so what. Guys don't tend to have curling irons & such, and they have all had "overheat/shutoff" devices for what, 20 years now, but even if it was that -- even if he was smoking in bed and fell asleep with a lit cigarette (which I think are supposed to self-extinguish now), it doesn't matter.

Even if the investigation manages to find the remnants of the upstairs smoke detector (good luck...) and shows that there wasn't a battery in it, even if they decided to rip them both from the ceiling and stomp on them because "Mohammed was f***ing Montana" -- (and I am quoting from an actual report I once wrote relative to an incident in a *different* apartment complex) -- even if the absolute worst and most embarrassing evidence appears, it doesn't really matter.

It really doesn't matter.

If a heat detector indicating that the temperature in that crawl space (attic) was going up 15 degrees a MINUTE, and/or that it was 200 degrees up there -- on a cold January night with the wind blowing kinda hard -- any competent firefighter would have kinda known that the only think capable of producing that amount of heat is a working fire -- and a fairly big one.

(Particularly firefighters who have to heat their own homes, and painfully know how much oil or gas or electricity it takes to keep the place at a far cooler temperature -- and how long it takes to warm up when they have been away and set the thermostat down.)

As reflected by a book by the same name, paper starts to burn somewhere in the neighborhood of 451 degrees Fahrenheit -- it gets more complicated when you are talking structural beams and sheets of plywood because you are talking raising the interior of both to the kindling temperature but I think we can all agree that wood doesn't burn at the boiling temperature of water (212 degrees) because if it did, water wouldn't put out wood fires -- and we know it does. Hence an alarm at 200 degrees -- from a sensor in the "right place" (and I will freely admit that the investigation will tell us what the optimum "right place" would have been -- although common sense says that most anywhere up there would have helped) -- a warning that the roof assembly is now up to 200 degrees would be a clear warning that if humans didn't do something damn quick, that roof's gonna be ON FIRE and as we know, that is exactly what did happen....

So yes, I am not waiting for the investigation to tell us exactly what the spark was -- it doesn't matter -- while the spark is relevant in preventing sparks, the fact that it went into a tinderbox is known and we know why it was a tinderbox.

Like not meeting the fire safety design standards circa the Reagan Administration????? Alerting sleeping tenants to a fire via car horns and pounding on doors? Good LORD, this is on the level of the 19th (18th/17th) Century ringing of the church bell and we really have reason to expect a bit more.

So no, Ed is not waiting for the investigation. It is irrelevant. We already know what happens when a fire (of whatever cause) gets into the unalarmed/unprotected combined roof structure, and this time it cost a human life.

Even if he was only a "student."
Even if it is Ed who is blowing the whistle on this....

Anonymous said...

ED, The point that you made clearly, without the results of the investigation, it that you directly blamed AFD for the students death. Thats the only thing I pointed out to you. And as usual you went off in all sorts of directions that weren't brought up, nor relevant to that simple statement.

Anonymous said...

The reason the boy died is because he went back into a burning building. He had made it out safely but then went back in.

Anonymous said...

If anyone could possibly have needed any more evidence of what an utterly clueless blowhard Ed is, Anonymous 12:47 just provided it, in about a dozen words.

Hey Ed, are you old enough to remember Roseanne Roseannadanna?

"Uh, never mind."

Dr. Ed said...

Do we actually know with certainty that he went back in? And if so, do we know why? Was he looking for his girlfriend and thought she was still inside?

My point, however, remains valid.

A: If that building had sprinklers, that fire wouldn't have been anything near what it was.

B: If that building had a Reagan-era fire detection/alarm system -- not even a modern one but one circa Iran Contra -- one or more heat detectors would have tripped, or gone into trouble mode when the wiring burnt through even if that didn't trip them (I believe it is supposed to) -- and while the AFD might have muttered a few choice obscenities about the college kids dragging them down there on a cold night (although it isn't like riding on the back anymore, is it -- they have an enclosed cab now) -- and I trust that AFD would have noticed the alarm wouldn't reset and then very quickly found out why.

C: I don't claim to be an expert on fire law but the simple fact is that Northampton (Mary Clair Higgins) was able to force Meadowbrook to have a fire alarm system in their buildings -- and if they could do it, then I fail to see why Amherst couldn't.

And to be clear here, when I say "AFD", I am not talking about the enlisted firefighters. I'm talking about the brass and the people to whom they answer -- Town Managers, Selectmen, and the unofficial powers of what is a very political town.

Let us not forget what happened to Louise Vera. She was the state building inspector assigned to UMass -- and she not only knew her stuff but started enforcing the rules. She made people actually replace waterlogged/rotted joists and not just slap a sheet of plywood over the top (this in North Village) -- I don't respect a lot of women who walk in and try to boss the guys around but I did respect her because she knew her stuff and she was right and people knew it.

The university called in a few favors and got her transferred somewhere else. Nursing homes I believe. So I do understand the political pressure and how the AFD's hands may have been tied.

And I will say one other thing -- Rolling Green, Mill Valley and Puffton have the best of the maintenance in town -- Boulders, not so much, particularly with the Cambodian residents -- and as to Southpoint, I actually had to go up on the roof of Building 44 because that was the ONLY way I was going to ever get it actually fixed.

It wasn't the height that bothered me as much as the simple realization that I weighed 50/75 lbs more than the small/skinny guys that (finally) were working up there, and if they were falling through the rotted plywood with some degree of frequency and they were -- in one case literally falling into a girl's (fortunately empty) bathroom, saying hello to her as he exited the bathroom and then her apartment -- well let's just say I was very very careful where I stepped....

The 1970s was the peak of the "throw-away" culture. They were tearing down 35-40 year WPA buildings and built things with a 25-30 year life expectancy presuming that they too would be torn down and replaced anew.

25-30 year life expectancy -- and 40 years have passed. Do the math.

Anonymous said...

Ed, once again you showed how out of touch and clueless you are.