The Washington Times-Herald

March 4, 2014

High-rise fatality illustrates concerns

By Mike Grant Times Herald
The Washington Times-Herald

---- — A fire last week at a public housing high-rise apartment building in Sullivan killed one person and left 18 others injured. A fire like that is one that worries Washington Fire Chief Dave Rhoads. “The building in Sullivan is very similar to the tower we have in Washington,” he said. “Theirs was seven stories high. The one here is nine stories tall.”

The similarities between the two buildings go beyond size. Sunrise Towers is a public housing facility that has mostly senior citizens and disabled residents. The Washington Towers also have those same types of people.

“Before 2000, when we bought our tower truck we didn’t have anything big enough to get to the upper floors,” said Rhoads. “Our current truck is 75-feet tall. It can reach to the seventh floor. In case of an emergency, we could bring people from the top two floors down and then take them out off of a balcony on the south side and down.”

In any community there are areas that create a worry for local fire fighters. For years one of those concerns was the long vacant Main Street Hotel that burned a few years ago. The tower is another one.

“There are 140 people living in that building,” said Rhoads. “That’s the highest concentration of people that we have anywhere in the county. We give it a lot of consideration. We pre-plan on how we would deal with a fire there. We also do training over there. Anything we can do to minimize any risk we try to do it.”

The tower was built in 1969 and is primarily constructed of concrete and brick. That does not mean that it is totally fire proof. “The building itself won’t burn,” said Rhoades, “but the contents can. I understand that is what happened in Sullivan. The people who were killed and injured there had smoke inhalation. If something would happen here, smoke would be the big worry.”

“Smoke is our enemy,” added Washington Housing Authority Director Bill O’Brian. “There is not a lot that can burn except for their personal belongings.”

The Housing Authority has made some upgrades to the building to reduce the possibility of a fatal fire including adding a sprinkler system. “We now have a sprinkler in every room,” said O’Brian. “We did that five or six years ago for safety and security reasons. It’s the best thing we could have done for the building and its residents. We hope there is never a fire, but if it happens we want to hit it with water as quickly as we can.”

To combat smoke the Housing Authority has also installed sensitive smoke detectors throughout the building. “They are very sensitive and we make a lot of runs over there to check them out,” said Rhoads, “but that’s okay.”

“Most of the time, they come over here and it is just burnt toast,” added O’Brian. “They are very sensitive, but we want to keep them that way.”

The fire and safety system also are checked on a regular basis to make certain they are operating properly. “We do a daily preventive maintenance inspection that includes the boiler, security system and fire safety,” said O’Brian.

“We also have certified professionals come in quarterly to check the sprinkler system and every six months someone checks the alarms. We try to make this the safest buildings around as far as fire is concerned.”

Despite those efforts for fire fighters the worry never goes away. “Some people kind of take it for granted that it is safe,” said Rhoads. “We talk about it on a daily basis, and with that many people living there it will always be a concern.”