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Emotions ran high at a meeting held Saturday by Cumberland Towers whistleblower Betty Murray, who received an eviction notice after talking to the Arkansas Times about her belief that the fire alarm system malfunctioned during the May 5 fire there that claimed the lives of two elderly women.
Several reporters were there for the meeting, along with about a dozen tenants of Cumberland Towers. Murray blamed the small turnout on the fact that representatives of the Little Rock Housing Authority (including Interim Director Shelly Ehenger, who refused last week to answer the list of written questions from the Arkansas Times) were in attendance and that attendees were made to write their names on a sign-up sheet before entering the room, a stipulation that Murray and others say they can’t recall being made before a tenant-led meeting in the past.
Notwithstanding what Murray called intimidation by the Little Rock Housing Authority, Saturday saw at least five Cumberland Towers residents come forward to say the alarms in their apartments either never went off the night of the fire, or went off so late as to make escape from the building all but impossible.
In addition to Murray, these included:
• Gladys Akins, formerly of Apartment 703, who said that — while she couldn’t remember whether the alarm went off in her apartment — by the time she opened the door to leave, the hallway was dark and full of smoke, and she had to feel her way to the door of the stairwell.
• Dorothy Collier, Apartment 803, who said that neither of the two alarms in her apartment went off. Collier said she heard the alarm going off faintly in the hallway, but thought it was a false alarm. “When I looked up and saw the ladder going up the wall,” she said, “that got me. The next thing I know the [fire]man was knocking on my door with the mask over his face saying ‘Let’s go! We’ve got to get out of here!’ ”
• Pearl Dobbins, apartment 317, who said that the alarm in her apartment never went off. “I had just went to the bathroom and sat back down on the bed,” Dobbins said. “And at that time, they knocked on my door and told me it was a fire.”
• Greg Wells, Apartment 806, who said that by the time the alarm went off in his bedroom, the hallway was impassable due to smoke. Wells said he and a group of other residents tried to escape, but had to turn back and wait on a balcony until they were rescued. “The smoke was just too much for us,” Wells said. “Too thick. We couldn’t breathe.”
These reports are significant because of the way the fire alarms at Cumberland Towers work, and could be evidence of a larger problem.
According to Ed Eudy, manager of AlarmTec, the company that installed and provides service to the fire alarm system at Cumberland Towers, if one alarm goes off in an apartment, the system will notify a panel manned by a guard, who is then supposed to go to check out the apartment. However, if the system senses fire or smoke at two or more detectors — in an apartment and an adjacent hallway, for example — the system is programmed to take the human factor out of the equation.
“If one device goes off in a unit, the (alarm) will go off in that unit, Eudy said. “If another device goes off that’s either on a different floor or in the hallway, it sets the whole building off.” This includes automatically notifying the fire department and sounding a high-decibel alarm tone and/or a spoken evacuation message from each of the building’s fire alarm sensors.
This means that minutes or even seconds after fire broke out on the seventh floor of Cumberland Towers, alarms should have been going off in every apartment. According to Murray, Dobbins and Collier, however, they did not. Even in those apartments where alarms did go off, the accounts of Akins and Wells are that alarms sounded after hallways and stairwells became smoke-filled.
The Housing Authority had been informed about alarm problems before this fire, according to Housing Authority documents. In a form dated Nov. 17, 2003 — just six months after new alarms were installed in the building — Cumberland Towers site coordinator Cynthia Martin writes of an incident in which Patricia Mueller, then a resident of Cumberland apartment 311, emptied an ashtray into a wastebasket. Mueller then left the apartment, and the wastebasket smoldered.
“(W)hen she entered her apartment shortly after, the apartment was filled with smoke and the alarm never went off,” Martin wrote. “Ms. Mueller stated that she phoned maintenance to report that the detector never went off.” Contacted by the Arkansas Times, Mueller said that even when maintenance tested the alarm by holding a twist of burning newspaper under the detector, the device didn’t go off for a minute and 20 seconds. “I know it was a minute and 20 seconds,” Mueller said. “Because I timed it.”
Such problems may be ongoing. Just before press time, Betty Murray — now in Cumberland Apartment 210 — called to report that an AlarmTec inspector named Ken came into her apartment on Tuesday morning to check the alarm. Murray said that after telling her that the alarms had worked properly in every other apartment, Ken sprayed her alarm with “liquid smoke.” When the alarm didn’t go off, Murray says Ken sprayed the alarm five more times. Murray said the alarm never went off.
Ed Eudy at AlarmTec verified that an inspector named Ken Norton was at Cumberland on Tuesday, checking alarms at the request of the Little Rock Housing Authority. Though Eudy said he hasn’t heard from Norton regarding the alarm in Murray’s apartment, Eudy also verified that Norton was testing alarms with a smoke-simulating substance called “liquid smoke.” While Eudy agreed that an alarm not going off when sprayed with the substance might indicate a problem, he said that it doesn’t validate the claims of Cumberland Towers residents who say their alarms malfunctioned the night of the fire.
“You can put in too much (liquid smoke), you can put in too little,” Eudy said. “You can not wait long enough, you can wait too long. There is some technique to it … ”
Asked about the claims of those who say there were problems with the alarms at Cumberland Towers, Eudy said the system worked perfectly on May 5, and that those reporting otherwise are “misinformed.”
“We’ve got it all documented through the monitoring station exactly what happened, exactly what time it was, (and) how many seconds it took to respond,” Eudy said. “We’ve provided all that information to the fire marshal.”
Eudy blamed some of the delay in response by the fire department on an inexperienced guard who was manning the alarm panel the night of the fire. When the panel indicated an alarm going off, Eudy said, the guard “went to the seventh floor to investigate it, found there was a problem, and instead of pulling a pull station on the seventh floor, he went back to the first floor to pull a pull station, to set off another device.” Meanwhile, Eudy said, smoke came out into the hallway and set off a detector. On the activation of this second device, the fire department was automatically called.
Capt. Don Kinney, chief fire marshal with the Little Rock Fire Department, says the final report on the Cumberland fire should be completed by this week. He said a security-camera video now being analyzed by the State Crime Lab shows strobe lights connected to the fire alarm system going off in the hallway within four minutes of the start of the blaze. Kinney suggested that residents who reported otherwise might have been confused. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been awakened in the middle of the night and not known what woke you up,” he said.
Meanwhile, a June 6 eviction still hangs over the head of Betty Murray at this writing. City Manager Bruce Moore and Little Rock Housing Authority Chairman Ron Copeland both say that they are looking into the matter closely, as is the ACLU. However, no one with the Housing Authority, including Copeland, will say that Murray has any other recourse but to go through the normal appeals process afforded any evicted tenant.
Murray is still committed to going forward with spreading the word about the problems she said occurred with the fire alarms, though she said that as word of that eviction spread through the building last week, the number of those slated to speak up on Saturday about malfunctioning fire alarms and other concerns dwindled. A few days before, Murray said she met a tenant who started crying when asked if she’d be in attendance. “She told me, ‘I have no place to go if they evict me.’ ” Murray said.
“People are scared,” Pearl Dobbins said. “They’ll talk to you. They’ll talk to me. But when it comes down to a meeting, they’re too scared.”