Security procedures in effect at Cumberland Towers May 5 when a fire killed two elderly residents could have contributed to critical delays in reports of the fire to the Little Rock Fire Department.
The policies:
• The building’s lone night security guard is required to walk rounds every hour, creating a 15-minute period when the fire alarm panel is not monitored.
• When the first alarm went off on the panel, the guard was required to confirm the fire visually before notifying the fire department. When more than one alarm went off, as eventually happened the night of the fire, an alarm was automatically relayed to the Fire Department.
• Confirmation of a fire could be difficult because guards were not allowed to use a pass key to enter an apartment at which there was no response without first getting approval from the building manager, a process that required a phone call and sometimes a callback.
Since the fire, rules have been changed. The fire department now is automatically notified if a single smoke detector is set off.
It’s unclear whether the gap in coverage contributed to the response time on the fire May 5. There are discrepancies in fire department and housing authority records for the night, in part because the alarm system clock wasn’t set correctly, and so far it’s been impossible to determine whether the guard was at the panel the moment the first alarm went off and how the response proceeded.
Based on conflicting records the Arkansas Times has inspected, it appears the first alarm went off as early 3:14 a.m. and a second alarm at 3:25 a.m., but the fire wasn’t reported to the fire department until 3:35 a.m., 21 minutes after the first alarm. The first fire engine arrived three minutes later at 3:38 a.m.
The key question is how long the fire smoldered before the first detector was triggered, and how long the blaze burned before the building went into “full alarm.” Fire Marshal Sandra Wesson’s investigation found that in the room where the fire started, temperatures rose high enough to “spall” the concrete ceiling, causing it to fracture.
New questions have arisen about whether all alarms in the building were working that night. They were tested last month and 10 percent failed. The alarm inspection, performed by AlarmTec of Sherwood — which originally installed the alarm system at Cumberland — found that 18 detectors and one strobe light in the building didn’t pass muster, with an AlarmTec technician listing the cause as either “defective,” “date expired,” “buzzer stopped after a few [seconds],” or “failed operation.”
Wesson said she was unable to determine whether the detector in the bedroom of seventh floor resident Lola Ervin worked or not the night of the fire, given that the device was destroyed by fire. Ervin’s body was found behind the partially opened door of Apt. 715. While computerized records show that one of the two detectors in Ervin’s apartment did go off, it is not known which one. Wesson’s preliminary report has concluded that the fire started when Ervin dropped a cigarette onto her mattress.
Wesson has taken several other detectors from the seventh floor for examination. While she has not yet released her findings as to whether those detectors worked, her preliminary report has said that from all available evidence, the alarm system activated as it was designed to do. Wesson has also said, however, that her investigation found several smoke detectors in the building disconnected or covered with hats, bags and tape — apparently by residents who feared triggering false alarms. They have told the Times that false alarms could be the basis for eviction from the building.
Wesson, citing still-pending autopsy reports, has not released her findings in the death of Marci J. Tate, who died in apartment 706.
There are about 180 apartments in the 11-story building, with at least 18 units on the seventh floor currently uninhabitable because of the fire.
The detectors that failed inspection included the one in Betty Murray’s new apartment on the second floor, the only one below the sixth floor that failed.
Murray was slated for eviction after she came to the Arkansas Times with a complaint that the alarm in her apartment (then on the seventh floor) never went off the night of May 5, and that the alarm in the hallway only “muttered.” Other residents have also told the Times their alarms never went off that night, or only went off after the hallway was so full of smoke that they couldn’t escape on their own. Now represented by the ACLU, Murray had an eviction hearing scheduled for Thurdsay, June 30. Though housing authority interim director Shelly Ehenger refused to comment on Murray’s eviction, Murray said the housing authority has offered her two “deals” to make her pending eviction go away, both contingent on her moving to another LRHA-managed property.
The unmanned guard station
Louise Barbee is a former lieutenant with Quality Security, the company that provides guards for housing authority properties. A five-year employee with Quality, Barbee had worked at Cumberland Towers “off and on” since 2000. She said she was fired earlier this month after an argument with Quality Security owner Claude Jackson over her sudden transfer to another building. Barbee said the transfer came after Cumberland Towers site coordinator Cynthia Martin began complaining about Barbee’s leaving the guard’s desk to use the restroom and eat lunch. Barbee contends Martin only began having a problem with her leaving the desk after catching her speaking to Betty Murray while on duty. (Jackson, however, said that Barbee wasn’t fired, and that her transfer was routine. According to Jackson, Barbee never officially quit. He said she simply broke ties with his company after he informed her that she was to be transferred).
Barbee says that if the alarm and the guard on duty had both been working properly the night of May 5, the fire would not have gotten out of control.
Though the fire marshal’s office still hasn’t addressed the actions of the security guard that night, Barbee said that procedures at Cumberland made for a dangerous situation.
Those procedures called for the sole night guard to walk rounds through the building every hour, riding the elevator to the 11th floor, then walking every hallway back down to the first floor. The guard is also expected to periodically walk around the exterior of the building. According to Barbee, this left the fire alarm panel unmanned for around 15 minutes each hour.
While Barbee said this might be acceptable if the guard on duty is experienced and walks the rounds properly, she contends that Quality Security often hires people with no prior experience. Barbee alleged that her boss had raised questions about the fitness of the guard who was on duty the night of the fire.
Jackson, however, denied that the guard who was on duty that night was unfit, adding that she still works for his company, though not at Cumberland Towers. He countered Barbee’s allegations that his company hires inexperienced people “off the street” by saying that even the most experienced guard was once hired “off the street.”
Jackson said that — in addition to state-required course on report writing and the like — new guards at Quality Security all receive additional training at his expense. In the case of guards assigned to Cumberland Towers, he said that training consists of working one eight-hour shift with an experienced guard. A supervisor then periodically checks in on the new guard.
Jackson said “quite naturally, I would love” to have more guards on duty at Cumberland, agreed with his former employee that it would be safer, given the size of Cumberland Towers, to have two guards there at night — one to walk the rounds and man the desk, another to watch the fire panel. But he said it would be costly for the housing authority.
In addition to raising the issue of the unmanned panel, Barbee said that while the guard on duty has an emergency key that opens all the doors in the building, guards at Cumberland Towers were under orders to get in touch with site coordinator Cynthia Martin before using it. Barbee said that in her experience, that often meant paging Martin and waiting for a call back.
“The guard ought to be able to use that key,” Barbee said.
“When the alarm goes off, you never know who’s in there and they can’t get up. You’ve got to go back downstairs, call the coordinator, get her permission to use the key. By then, someone could be dead.”
Ehenger and one of three finalists announced last week for the full-time director’s position, says that she stands by policies for Cumberland Towers as they were on May 5. She also says that, “based on what the fire marshal has told me, I am at peace with what happened.”
Ehenger said the building still has one security guard at night, and the rounds system is still in place, leaving the panel unmanned for some time every night. The change to having the fire department respond on “first alarm,” however, has made the system of visual confirmation of alarms by a guard obsolete. The high-rise was built before sprinkler systems were required and so smoke alarms are the only line of fire defense.
Ehenger said that even with the report of 18 alarms failing inspection, she is confident the system worked as designed. She said AlarmTec has informed her that the alarms that failed during testing may have been affected by smoke from the fire, or by cleaning agents used to clean smoke-damaged apartments.
As for Barbee, Ehenger questioned what motives the former guard might have for speaking to the Times.
“I heard you say she was a ‘former employee.’ That word ‘former’ always throws something out to me,” Ehenger said.
Ehenger says the Housing Authority stands by the policies in effect May 5 and said that having one guard on duty at night was standard for high-rises.
Barbee, however, is not convinced, especially with the number of handicapped and elderly residents at Cumberland.
“They need to think about putting two people in there,” she said. “You’ve got all those people’s lives in your hands. One can do the rounds, while the other can sit down and watch the panel.”