When one building in a string of attached buildings is on fire, it’s likely the neighboring fronts will also catch. The stability of historic establishments aflame is unpredictable and renders a risky situation for firefighters if they enter. This is where fire sprinklers could help.
Main Street building owners between Mill and Charles streets have the choice to participate in a fire sprinkler program to quell potential fire incidents that could destroy a chunk of Old Town due to the close vicinity of establishments.
“Buildings that are connected like that—especially historic Old Town, where those buildings have got a few years of age in them—there’s no telling what kind of condition the structure itself is in,” Assistant Chief Mark McNeal said. “If there was a good deep-seated fire going, we would not commit interior companies to that because it’s not worth a firefighter’s life.”
The sprinkler project is estimated to cost roughly $870,000, Fire Marshal Tim Ippolito told city council at a council workshop Monday, July 25. While the city will fund the initial installation, private upkeep and maintenance cost of the sprinklers will be the building owner’s responsibility.
“We’re bifurcated by Main Street and then the plaza, creating four quadrants,” Ippolito said of the physical barriers dividing Old Town.
The project is both a public and a private endeavor. City Attorney Liz Plaster said the public purpose is to protect the historical value of the buildings in Old Town.
“If there was a fire to start somewhere in that quadrant, it could possibly take out that entire quadrant. Where as the streets could potentially stop the fire,” Plaster said.
All owners of buildings within a quadrant must agree to the installation before the section is able to get them.
“The big problem is we’ve got to get everybody on board conceptually. This is a voluntary program, it’s not mandated by our ordinances, so they have to want this” Ippolito said.
After development staff went door-to-door, sent letters and made phone calls, most of the building owners conceptually approved the installation, according to the workshop presentation. Ippolito said his team hasn’t been able to contact two of the building owners, leaving 25 of the 30 establishments approved.
City Council approved funding for the fire sprinkler project in October 2014. The project was put on hold while Wayne Ferguson Plaza was being completed, so building owners wouldn’t have to deal with double the construction, Ippolito said.
Once it is determined what buildings will be getting the sprinkler system, staff will go to design with the engineer. After those drawings are made, the city can go to bid for the installation, Ippolito said.
“There are some annual ongoing costs with this program,” he said. “All fire sprinkler systems and all fire alarm systems are mandated by state law to be inspected by an independent third party and certified annually.”
The project team has looked at how to support these costs that are estimated to be about $6,500 a year. It will be tied onto the project contract already drafted, he said.
“It’s just, how do we divide it?” Ippolito said.
A sprinkler system may not extinguish a fire, but it can keep it from growing and getting out of control, McNeal said. It gives firefighters time to get into the building, extinguish the fires and end the spread of the flames. Without the sprinklers in the historic buildings, firefighters must assume the integrity of the inner structures are unsafe to enter.
“As a firefighter that’s a scary thing for us to do, because you want to save the buildings, you want to take care of it, save as much contents as you can, but those are also buildings we do not commit our people inside if there’s a well-established fire,” McNeal said.