Though the assistant fire marshal writing a final report on the deadly May 5 blaze at Cumberland Towers has been “wrestling” with some of the details, she said her investigation so far indicates key fire alarms worked as designed the night of the fire.
She freely admits, however, that most of her data on how those alarms worked has come from the companies that installed and monitored them. Several residents have told the Times alarms didn’t work, malfunctioned or sounded after halls were filled with smoke.
The inspection also revealed, however, that several alarms in the building had been disabled, apparently by residents. And the investigation uncovered apparent discrepancies in times recorded by the alarm system at Cumberland Towers and those in a timeline provided by the Little Rock Fire Department.
According to a preliminary report released June 2 by Capt. Sandra Wesson, the May 5 fire started in Cumberland Towers apartment 715. Wesson said it was probable that 84-year-old Lola Ervin fell asleep while smoking in bed at the high-rise, which is at Eighth and Cumberland Streets. After an initial period of smoldering — which Wesson said could have lasted from 45 minutes to two hours — the mattress and bedding caught fire. Though badly burned, Ervin was apparently able to attempt an escape. Firefighters found her sink running, and her body was discovered near the door to the hallway, the door standing open 18 inches. In Ervin’s bedroom, the fire — fed by the contents of the room and air from an open door that led to the outside balcony — had burned hot enough to “spall” the ceiling, boiling the trace water in the concrete and causing it to fracture.
Early in an interview at the Central Fire Station, Wesson read off a timeline of events that had one of the two smoke detectors in Ervin’s apartment — though records from that night don’t specify which one — going off at 3:21 a.m., with the system sending the building into full alarm and notifying alarm monitoring company SentryNet at 3:32 a.m. — an 11-minute difference. Little Rock Fire Department dispatch records show that a call came in from SentryNet at 3:35 a.m., with the first fire company arriving on the scene at Cumberland Towers three minutes later.
Wesson later produced records from the alarm system at Cumberland Towers that show that — correcting for the alarm system timer, which was set seven minutes slow — the detector in Ervin’s room went off at 3:28 a.m., with a second device in the hallway sending the building into full alarm at 3:32 a.m. — a four-minute difference. Wesson was unavailable when we tried to reach her about these apparent discrepancies.
Wesson is confident that the alarm system worked the way it was designed the night of May 5. As for the numerous residents interviewed by the Arkansas Times who said their alarms never went off or went off too late to escape the building, Wesson said that while she wasn’t in those apartments the night of the fire, and can’t contradict what those eyewitnesses say, she has interviewed several residents of Cumberland Towers who said their alarms worked. She declined the reporter’s offer of phone numbers to reach those who say their alarms didn’t.
Meanwhile, hampering a final word on whether the alarms in Ervin’s apartment worked properly is the fact that the intensity of the blaze destroyed the detector in her bedroom. Wesson said the open balcony door in Ervin’s bedroom might have vented smoke from the smoldering mattress enough to avoid setting off the detector. On the other hand — and raising at least the possibility that Ervin might have somehow disabled the detector in her bedroom in order to smoke without setting off the alarm — Wesson said her investigation found several apartments where smoke detectors had been unplugged, covered with towels, or even taped over.
Residents like Betty Murray (who faces an upcoming eviction hearing after bringing her concerns about malfunctioning fire alarms to the Arkansas Times) and Dorothy Collier say that covering up the detector while cooking or smoking is fairly common at Cumberland, where tenants can receive punitive “points” from administrators for accidentally setting off the smoke alarm. Under policies put in place by the Little Rock Housing Authority, if a resident amasses a certain number of points, he or she may be evicted.
No matter what happened inside, once the door to Ervin’s apartment was opened, Wesson said drafts drew thick smoke through the building’s hallways “like a horizontal chimney.”
“There was a tremendous amount of smoke,” Wesson said. “The bedding was polyurethane foam, which is basically the same (chemicals) gasoline is made out of. It produces a lot of black smoke, and it was pulled into the hallway.” Wesson said the data from the three smoke detectors mounted in the 7th-floor hallway show that they all went off “like dominoes” within a minute of one another. However, this scenario still doesn’t square with the accounts of some residents who have reported smoke-filled and impassable hallways only seconds after the alarms went off in their apartments. Referring to these reports, Wesson repeated what has become a familiar refrain in the investigation of this case — that even with an 85-decibel alarm going off in the same room, “If you’re awakened in the middle of the night by a loud noise and then all of a sudden you’re up, you may not even hear that alarm.”
Asked if it’s wise for the fire marshal’s report to rely so heavily on records produced by the alarm monitoring company and the alarm installation company, Wesson said, “These reports are generated by a computer. They can’t really manipulate it. It’s not something they generate themselves. It’s not something they typed up.”
As to whether the Little Rock fire marshal’s office will do a more detailed investigation into the effectiveness of the alarm system given the complaints of some residents, Wesson said she is “staying in contact” with alarm installer AlarmTec while they evaluate and test the alarm system at Cumberland Towers. The fire marshal’s office isn’t actively conducting its own probe. “As far as actively going with them and doing their job with them, no,” Wesson said. “I’m not an alarm technician. I’ll go with them and make sure [the alarms] go off. But I can’t test their system.”
When Wesson learned that accidentally setting off a smoke detector would add to a tenant’s points count at Cumberland Towers, she said she would talk to the Little Rock Housing Authority about how the fear of such a punishment might encourage residents to disable their detectors. In addition, Wesson said that since the fire, the Little Rock Fire Department has decided to respond to “first alarms” at Cumberland Towers — meaning that SentryNet will inform the department and firefighters will scramble when even one detector goes off there.
While this will surely mean a lot more dry runs, Wesson said the safety of residents is what’s important. “If that’s what it takes,” she said, “we’re going to do it.”
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