Friday, March 13, 2015

Fire code change approved over fire marshal's objections; will help sale of device with political investors

Posted By on Fri, Mar 13, 2015 at 10:49 AM

ASK FOR FIRE CODE CHANGE: Sen. Jon Woods (left) and Daniel Hogan, a Conway police officer.
  • ASK FOR FIRE CODE CHANGE: Sen. Jon Woods (left) and Daniel Hogan, a Conway police officer.

A bill to change the state fire code to allow door-locking devices that could be engaged in active shooter situations in schools was approved in a voice vote this morning by the House Insurance and Commerce Committee despite strong objections from State Police Capt. Lindsey Williams, who serves as state fire marshal.

The bill would allow installation of the devices in every classroom in Arkansas, potentially thousands of them. Sen. Jason Rapert and other Republican politicians happen to be investors in a company that sells such devices. The bill early passed the Senate 33-0, with Rapert not voting on account of his personal interest.

Sen. Jon Woods, sponsor of the bill with Rep. Micah Neal, said the devices were easy to engage and simple to disengage. Daniel Hogan, a Conway police officer who leads a company selling such devices, said he'd met resistance when prospective buyers were told the devices violated fire codes when used. But it is also a violation of the fire code to block a door with a desk to prevent intruders, he noted. "It's easy to take on and off," he said. "The chance of having an active shooter and a fire at the same time is something I've never heard of."

Rep. Charlie Collins, chair of the committee, used his questioning to push the bill as another "tool in the toolbox" to guard against shooters on campus. He noted his bill to allow people to carry concealed weapons on campus.

Williams of the State Police said he knew of no fire marshal in the country who approved of such devices. 

"Why would anyone be opposed to something intended to enhance school security," he asked rhetorically. "The problem is that while this attempts to address one problem, it enhances the danger from another issue, such as fire."

He said proponents note an absence of school fire deaths while school shooting deaths have occurred. Williams said that's because of "very effective and well-defined [fire] code development over the years." He disagreed that the door-locking devices were easy to disengage, particularly in a "panic" situation. He noted that, in a mass school shooting in Colorado, the shooters had also set fires. The fires were extinguished by sprinkler systems, which don't exist in most Arkansas schools. "If these devices had been in place, people in those classrooms [in a similar situation] might very well not have been able to get out." He said a piece of equipment rarely used isn't easy to operate when it isn't used every day. He noted that the Connecticut fire marshal, in a state where the Sandy Hook school massacre occurred, does not allow use of such devices.

Before the meeting, I asked Neal and Rapert about Rapert's investment in the company.

Said Neal:

I've heard that the Senator has some ownership in a company that makes some of these devices. I supported the bill before I had that knowledge. I assume that there are other companies that make similar devices. I support the bill because I think it will make people safer.

Said Rapert, about my question of whether he'd disclosed his interest:

I did not participate in any discussion or votes on the bill and abstained from the vote on the floor. I used motion of personal privilege to inform the entire body from the well of my reason for abstaining from the vote - I invested in an Arkansas company that has the patent on a door barrier device. The device was invented by a school resource police officer and a school principal to help save the lives of children.

Per our Senate counsel and Senate rules, because the bill did not specifically apply to one particular company or interest and did not only affect me, I actually did not have to abstain, withhold comment or submit a letter which I offered to do. The bill affects ALL barrier devices or companies that make them, it is not specific only to a company that I have invested in and does not mandate usage of door barrier devices. The bill clarifies the code which is silent as to ALL barrier devices.

My statement of financial interest lists my investment in the company as well.

I actually went above and beyond to inform the Senate because I wanted to be above reproach. Thanks for asking before passing judgement.

Aside from one question of concern about a local fire marshal's objection from Rep. Robin Lundstrom, Republican committee member questioning was friendly. Woods asked for a vote though time was running out and other questions remained.

The door-locking device being sold by Hogan costs about $120 a door. An article in the Democrat-Gazette last year said Hogan and Wesley Scroggin, an assistant principal in Conway patented their device. The article said it takes two hands to compress the locks on each side to remove it once in place. It doesn't require electricity.

Partners in ULockitSecurity include Hogan, Rapert, Ted Thomas (a former Republican legislator appointed to the Public Service Commission by Gov. Asa Hutchinson) and Faulkner County Republican Justice of the Peace Randy Higgins.

Rapert touted it in the article as useful in any place that has large gatherings and where weapons aren't allowed.

Hogan said at the time there was great interest from Faulkner County schools, but he said more than once in testimony today that the fire code violation was a hindrance.

The bill now goes to House floor.

UPDATE: In response to requests for more information.

The device Rapert and them are selling requires a mounting mechanism on a door frame. Drilling on the frames can affect the fire rating of the door. As mentioned earlier, it requires two hands to squeeze small release latches then to push up the locking panel to open the door latch. A small child couldn't do the job. Other devices already on the market also operate like a so-called single-action door handle. A push of the door handle on the inside of a locked room unlocks the door.

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