The $20,000 Question: Loft Residents Questioning Huge Fire Detail Bill

Fire Details such as this one over the weekend at the old Beacon Wiper plant near the chelsea creek are coming into question. many property own¬ers are wondering if the city Ordinance requiring details is commensurate with the risk.

For residents of the relatively new Spencer Lofts on Dudley Street, August produced one big question.

And it’s a $20,000 question that’s raising a lot of concern citywide.

Spencer Lofts Trustees opened their mail last week and found a bill from the Chelsea Fire Department for nearly $10,000 for a mandatory Fire Detail. Additionally, they’re expecting another bill for the same amount. In total, the cost for the two-week Fire Detail – which came about when lightning struck the Loft building on Aug. 19th and compromised the fire alarm system – is expected to cost the condo owners some $20,000.

Naturally, the bill from the local jakes has condo owners feeling a little burnt.

And now they and several members of City government are questioning the practice, wondering if it’s a vestige of the past or a necessary precaution.

“The full bill for repairs to our fire alarm system won’t be anywhere near what the amount of the detail will cost us,” said Nathaniel Udell, a trustee at Spencer Lofts. “That doesn’t add up to me.”

Added resident Olga Karas, “The Fire Station is only two blocks away. How much faster is the fire truck going to get here if we call 9-1-1 or the detail on our property calls 9-1-1? It’s an outrageous amount of money for something that may not be necessary.”

Trustee Keith Brooks handled most of the communication between the Lofts and the Fire Department, and he said he didn’t think it was necessary. He noted that while the automatic alarm was disabled, the fire suppression system and the fire protection system were in perfect working order.

“To a resident of this city it sounds like extortion at a difficult economic time when we can least afford it,” said Brooks. “It is downright nefarious. I know lots of other owners here in Chelsea and none of their associations could afford $10,000 a week either. I think the Fire Department is taking advantage of property owners because they think most of us are absentee and can’t do anything about it.”

Firefighters see it much differently.

In fact, from their perspective, they actually saved the residents a good deal of money by staying with the detail rather than evacuating the property.

The situation started – as stated above – with the lightning strike.

The bolt fried the hardwired fire alarm and sent more than 100 fire alarm codes to the Central Fire Station around 11 p.m. that night. Fire crews arrived on the scene, and after examining the situation, ordered that the 24-hour Fire Detail be placed on the property.

Unfortunately, residents and firefighters said that the fire alarm repair company had a number of other jobs to do ahead of Spencer Lofts. The electrical storm had apparently knocked out systems in much larger buildings, such as Boston’s Hancock Tower. Those jobs took precedence and the company didn’t end up getting to the repairs until last week.

“The deputy on duty made the determination to place a Fire Detail there to monitor the building, which is consistent with our protocols,” said Deputy John Quatieri. “We talked with the management company and they indicated that we should leave the details there, but this went on for two weeks. So, I can understand the condo owners are upset by the bill. However, I kind of feel that the Fire Department is being targeted unfairly. We don’t really have a choice. The only other option was to evacuate the building. If we had evacuated the building, residents would have had to go to a hotel or seek other living arrangements. That would have been a lot more expensive.”

Quatieri said no one ever expected the details to last two weeks.

“Everyone thought this would be a quick fix and we’d get the details out of there,” he said. “Unfortunately it wasn’t a quick fix. We never expected to be there two weeks…From the Fire Department’s perspective we didn’t have any alternative other than to evacuate the building – an 80-unit building with no fire protection.”

Interim Fire Chief Dave LaFond said that he backed up the decision, one that is driven by a City Ordinance calling for details or full evacuation of a property without a functioning fire alarm system.

“No way did we think it would last two weeks, but once we are there for a detail we can’t walk away and shift liability,” he said.

“Had we not done anything and a fire broke out, and lives were lost, I don’t know?” he continued. “It would be a sleepless night for the deputy chief with a building that big.”

City Manager Jay Ash said Fire Details are not something he deals with, typically letting that be handled by the Fire Department.

“The assignment of fire details doesn’t rise to my level; it is the responsibility of the Fire Department,” he said.” So, while I can’t comment on the specifics of this particular case without reviewing the matter with the fire chief, I can say that details are typically assigned by the department when the risk of fire or building collapse is heightened as a result of a systems or structural failure.  During the recent [tropical] storm, there were details assigned in various locations for building concerns and downed wires.”

The $20,000 question at Spencer Lofts, though, raises a much bigger question about the protocols of Fire Details.

Most agree that the Fire Department followed the typical procedure, but some are questioning whether the typical procedure is still a necessity.

The details are required by a City Ordinance, as stated above, that has been in place for some time.

Behind the scenes, the City initiated a review of this policy earlier this summer because there have been a number of grumblings from property owners recently about Fire Detail bills – though none of the complaints or bills have yet risen to the level of the situation at Spencer Lofts.

City officials are looking to determine if the requirement for those details is actually commensurate with the risk.

Chief LaFond confirmed that he is looking into the matter on a larger scale.

“This policy was established long before I took over and it’s a long-standing departmental policy that the previous chief wrote up and is driven by a City Ordinance,” he said. “The City Manager has convened a group that includes the City Auditor, the Fire Department, the Building Commissioner and the City Solicitor to look at details for the department. This seems to be something that keeps coming up in the City. The guys are following the protocol and the ordinance. We are going to sit and look at the ordinance. If they choose to change the ordinance, then we will change protocol.”

At the Spencer Lofts, numerous residents that talked with the Record were in agreement that their situation was an example of the “Old Chelsea” meeting squarely and in conflict with the “New Chelsea.”

“The Fire Department can do this in Chelsea because most landlords – absentee landlords – don’t want any trouble and don’t want the Fire Department in their buildings,” said Brooks. “They give the price and the landlords pay it. Landlords don’t want the Fire Department or ISD in the building to find violations. They deal with a disenfranchised population that won’t question the Fire Department or ISD and won’t speak out. However, we are owner-occupants in this building and we want to fix our violations if we have any and we will speak up.”

Added Udell, “It feels like they’re being a bit dismissive of us. Maybe that worked in the old Chelsea, but we’re part of the new Chelsea. We are good neighbors and we pay an awful lot in taxes.”

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