Fire safety: Butterfield Common residents' wish for a generator could come true
DOVER >> A generator at a senior housing complex at Butterfield Common would go a long way in relieving fire safety concerns, according to a few of its residents.
The owner of the building is being offered one by donation.
"We're looking at that now," said Deb Zack, asset manager at Windham & Windsor Housing Trust who is responsible for oversight and management for Butterfield Common. "We have priced out a generator over the last two years."
When a generator at Dover School was replaced, there was talk about whether the old one could be used at the Grand Summit Hotel at Mount Snow. The generator was not big enough for operations at the hotel, said West Dover Fire Chief Rich Werner. But it should be sufficient for Butterfield Common.
A new one would have cost between $30,000 to $35,000 back in May 2015, Zack said. And the price could be up to $50,000 if it includes back-up power for both the elevator and sprinklers.
The issue was explored by Windham & Windsor Housing Trust following a Dover Select Board meeting that Butterfield Common residents had attended to raise concerns about unsafe walking conditions.
"Somehow that led to one or two residents talking about egress out of the building," Zack said, adding that the town requested information on fire safety compliance and all requirements were satisfied. "I'm kind of surprised in some ways that it has come up but not really."
She said she could understand residents' concerns.
Butterfield Common resident Jack Carroll took the Reformer on a tour of the building before knowing the donation was on the table. He worries about how residents would get out of in the case of a fire, especially if the power goes out and the sprinkler system fails. The location of a gas tank directly beneath his window was also worrisome. But he said the generator will help alleviate those concerns.
Carroll called news on the donation "a beginning."
"It's not to say it's done," he said. "It's in the process."
Living on the second floor with no fire escape Carroll often thought about how residents on the floor, some with disabilities, would fare if the power was knocked out and the sprinkler system could not function. Gail Gagne and Nancy Andersen, other residents living on the second floor, shared the same concerns.
"We really pride ourselves on keeping our buildings safe and up to code. It's rare that we do run into an issue with code violations," said Zack. "The power goes out rarely out there. But I think there was an emergency four or five years ago and the power went out for an extended period of time. I can definitely understand people worrying."
Assistant State Fire Marshal Brian Johnson said he had asked about the generator when Butterfield Common was being built.
"I couldn't believe there wasn't going to be a generator," he said. "When I questioned it to my superiors and was told there was nothing required for a generator, at that point you got to realize, 'There's nothing I can do about it.' To me, does it make sense? Sure. It's an expense. It's their choice to make that decision."
Werner, who was not fire chief at the time of the permitting, said he didn't know why buildings "were permitted that way but they are."
Johnson said fire code required an electric fire pump and the building had one.
"If they could show a reliable source of power then a back-up generator wasn't required," Johnson said, adding that the amount of hours a source can supply power is taken into account. "Green Mountain Power was able to show it was a reliable power source so it wasn't required. By code, we could not require a generator. And we still cannot require a generator by code. Whether we think it's a good thing or not, we just enforce the code."
With the sprinkler system, egress-size windows were not required either. The building's current windows may be small for people to get in and out of, Johnson noted.
"The hazard index drops immensely once a sprinkler system is installed because they're built to contain the fire and more than likely extinguish the fire itself," he said. "It's a really tough situation. Yes, they do have small windows or windows that don't meet egress size. But they're not required to."
To make matters more complicated, Johnson pointed to federal access codes which say that just because someone's handicapped or becomes handicapped doesn't mean they must be confined to the first floor. That would break all the laws, he said. Both floors must be available to everyone.
"So while I understand their concern, there are other factors that everyone has to go by," Johnson said. "I'm not saying they don't have legitimate concerns. There are rules out there that everyone has to follow. The fire prevention rules are being followed."
Fire marshals check up on boarding schools, nursing homes and hospitals annually to make sure everything is up to code. The rest involves complaints.
"We have been back in there (Butterfield Common) a number of times because of some of the complaints and because of some of the work that's ongoing," Johnson said. "They had a couple water lines that broke this year. We made sure they were corrected in the proper way."
Bruce Martin, State Division of Fire Safety regional manager at the Springfield office, said Butterfield Common was required to submit building plans to his office. They were reviewed and scrutinized for compliance. Then inspection was done upon completion of construction.
"My understanding is some tenants are unhappy by certain things. But I would say the building's in substantial compliance. It has a fire-alarm system," Martin said. "We've accepted public utilities as being reasonably reliable."
Unless a building has a "super high-risk occupancy" like a prison or hospital then a generator is not mandatory, he told the Reformer.
A generator at Butterfield Common would be good, Martin said, but it's not required.
"There's a pretty high level of protection in terms of fire," he said, pointing out that rooms are separated in such a way where fires are not likely to spread from their place of origin and fires would be controlled by one or two sprinklers like most buildings with fire sprinkler systems. "They have a fire alarm which provides notification. They have all the bells and whistles. They might not have a generator to get through times when the power's down. But that's a lot better than a lot of other residential dwellings in Vermont."
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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