Chief Flannery explains Benfield Farms fire safety requests

by Karina Coombs

Chief Flannery recently asked the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) to reconsider its position on a number of fire safety items he had requested for the Benfield Farms affordable housing development. During the October 15 meeting of the Housing Authority, a letter from NOAH to Flannery was discussed in which the organization declined to add additional fire safety items. Reached for comment after the meeting, NOAH’s Director of Real Estate Development Toby Kramer, explained that she believed the items went beyond what was required.

“They have done an extraordinary job in paying attention to fire safety issues,” said Flannery. “[But] I hold the project to the highest safety standards that apply,” he said, explaining the property would have 26 units of housing for senior residents, some of whom may have physical or cognitive impairments. Flannery described three recommendations he is asking NOAH to consider.

Automatic fire warning system

State building codes require that any building with more than 13 units have an automatic fire warning system for which the state recognizes three acceptable options: A facility may have a person available 24 hours a day to directly call the fire department in the event of an emergency. A second option would be to have a central monitoring station that would receive the alarm and then retransmit it to the fire department. Alternatively, a facility can be connected to a municipal fire alarm box that would notify the fire department directly and access the town’s fire whistle. 

NOAH has chosen to use a monitoring system for its fire-related calls, against Flannery’s preference for the fire alarm box. He was told the decision was made because Benfield had other monitoring needs that it would already be paying for monthly. 

While the system meets the code, Flannery has asked NOAH reconsider using the fire alarm box, which would be connected to a wire that circles town and connects to the communication center. Flannery explained it is the preferred method and is used at the Carlisle School, Town Hall, Ferns and at churches and other senior housing. The fire alarm box costs a few thousand dollars, according to Flannery, but does not have any additional ongoing costs.

When an alarm is triggered, not only does the box immediately connect to the fire station, but it also sounds the code over the fire whistle. Flannery explained he prefers this type of call because, since the fire station is not staffed, firefighters can hear the code as they travel from their homes to the station. Flannery explained that it takes as much as eight minutes for responders to reach Benfield. He also noted that monitoring stations have up to 90 seconds to resend calls to local fire departments and he is concerned about every minute that would keep firefighters from the property. “To me [those 90 seconds] are unacceptable, said Flannery.

Radio communication

Flannery explained that building owners are also required to provide the ability for emergency services to communicate from within a structure to their communication center as part of the building code. Large buildings made with steel and concrete can impede the radio signals of first responders trying to communicate with others outside of the structure. Buildings must be tested to ensure communication is possible, and if it is not, the owners must purchase equipment to make it possible. 

The southern end of Carlisle is known for having a weak signal, explained Flannery. NOAH is suggesting that because of that, any deficiency in signal strength inside the building would be the town’s responsibility. Flannery has tested the radios outside at Benfield and is able to reach the communication center. He will be unable to test the interior reception until the construction is complete, but imagines an amplifier will be necessary because of the building’s size. Flannery noted the cost of an amplifier could range from $25,000 to $40,000.

While NOAH may consider weak signal strength a town problem, Flannery explained that the state fire marshal considers the building code to be clear: if the fire department is able to transmit to the dispatcher by portable radio while outside of a building, there has to be the same level of communication inside of the building. Flannery said NOAH should have known from the beginning that an amplifier might be required and set money aside. 

Remote annunciators

Finally, the building is also required to have a fire alarm annunciator panel inside each main entrance to alert firefighters as to the approximate location of the source of the alarm. Benfield has one inside the front door and another at the pump house. Flannery had asked for one at a third door. While he would like NOAH to reconsider their decision not to add it, and thinks he could ultimately require it, he is more focused on the other two items.

Flannery commends NOAH for providing great access for fire apparatus, and making a fully sprinkled and fire-safe building. He is confident the issue with radio signals will be resolved, because otherwise it would be a code violation. The notification system remains his central concern. “They are complying with the law,” said Flannery, “[But] I’m the Chief who has to decide how my community is best protected.” ∆