While the chief of the Little Rock Fire Department said the department’s investigation is not looking to “fix blame” in the deaths of two women during a May 5 blaze at Cumberland Towers, she said fire officials are moving to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. To that end, the department has changed policies regarding residential high-rise alarms, and has stepped up education efforts in the city’s residential high rises.
Chief Rhoda Kerr acknowledges that there were procedural problems — having firefighters respond only when two or more smoke detectors sounded at Housing Authority high-rises, and a Cumberland Towers policy that had the security guard visually confirm a fire before calling the fire department.
“Sometimes it’s not until after something happens that you realize what the policy is,” Kerr said. “Unfortunately, we can’t fix that prior to — and it may not have made any difference in the Cumberland Towers fire.”
Since the fire, the department has started responding on “first alarm” to residential towers. This makes the visual confirmation by the guard moot. Kerr said her department is against having security guards “check out” a possible fire before calling the fire department, given that most aren’t trained in fire detection.
“They’re not the experts, they’re not prepared, they don’t know what to look for,” Kerr said. “We totally support the fact that the minute an alert is sent to the monitoring company, that the process takes place that we become notified.”
Kerr said that with the policy changes now in place, Housing Authority high-rises are as safe as they can be. All were built before sprinkler systems were required.
As to reports of malfunctioning alarms at Cumberland Towers the night of the fire (first brought to light by Cumberland resident Betty Murray and since confirmed by several of her neighbors), Kerr stands by the preliminary report filed by Fire Marshal Sandra Wesson, who said the system worked as designed. Kerr said her department has to believe in the integrity of the companies that monitored and installed the alarms, both of which supplied the majority of the data that led to the fire marshal’s finding that the alarm system worked. “You could take another alarm company and go in there,” Kerr said, “but they don’t have the records, they don’t have the data, they don’t have all the things that this company does. … If they identify any issue, they’re certainly going to (fix) it. They’re not going to ignore it. They’re not going to cover it up.”
Meanwhile, Wesson said that she wasn’t surprised by the news that the smoke detectors in 10 percent of the apartments at Cumberland Towers failed during testing last month, noting that most of the detectors listed as failing were located on the upper floors of the building.
“The wiring got really a lot of heat to it and could’ve caused some of the failure,” Wesson said. “That’s not an alarming number after a fire of that magnitude, given the amount of smoke and heat.”
Resident Betty Murray faces eviction after coming to the Arkansas Times with her account that the smoke detector and alarm in her apartment didn’t work the night of the fire. When tested, the detector in Murray’s new apartment on the second floor of Cumberland Towers also didn’t work — the only detector below the sixth floor that failed during testing, according to a report filed by alarm installer AlarmTec. Inspectors also have found that several residents intentionally disabled smoke detectors to avoid false alarms because they said they feared eviction if they caused false alarms by smoking or cooking.
In addition to the policy changes now in place, the department is continuing to provide seminars on fire safety for residents.
“We’re trying to teach people prevention,” Kerr said. “Risk reduction is what we really like to call it — how do we reduce the risk to the community we serve as well as to ourselves?”
Kerr said that the hardest thing for her department to control is individual actions. The fire marshal’s preliminary report on the May 5 blaze found that it was caused when an elderly resident — Lola Ervin, who died in the fire — fell asleep while smoking. While Kerr said they can’t tell people what to do in their own homes and apartments, they can address the problem through education.
Kerr said that Wesson will soon be named as the dedicated fire inspector for Little Rock’s high-rise buildings. As one of the city’s fire marshals, Wesson makes presentations on fire safety at Little Rock Housing Authority properties. Wesson said that if anything good has come from the Cumberland fire, it’s that attendance and attention have been up. A recent meeting at Jessie Powell Towers drew 78 people, far above the numbers Wesson used to see during her talks, which include tips on keeping safe while cooking, smoking, burning candles.
In addition, the department is stepping up fire drills and mock evacuations. A drill last Thursday at 2 p.m. had Wesson and a fleet of fire trucks on scene at Jessie Powell Towers. Kerr said that a similar drill staged at Cumberland Towers the week before the May 5 fire undoubtedly saved lives.
“It was still fresh in their minds. Many of them knew what to do,” she said. “They had the floor monitors, they had buddies that helped each other out. Looking at it after the fact, it did help make people safer.”
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