May 11, 2013

Fire officials focus on building codes in Waterville blaze

Investigators focus on whether a sprinkler system, which was not on May 3, was up to code.

By AMY CALDER Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE – State fire officials have closed their investigation into a fire that heavily damaged a downtown building a week ago.

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Two buildings in downtown Waterville burn Friday afternoon. As part of the investigation, investigators are looking into whether a sprinkler system was up to code. The fire on the upper floors of the Main Street buildings between Silver and Spring streets were aided by a sprinkler system that was not on at the time of the blaze.

Photo by Robert Koenig

However, they continue to look at whether any building or life safety codes were violated.

The sprinkler system was not on in the building at the time of the late afternoon fire May 3.

"The fire investigation is concluded," Sgt. Tim York of the State Fire Marshal's Office said Friday. "As far as the sprinkler system is concerned, I'd say we're still looking into it."

The cause of the fire at 18 Main St. is listed by the Fire Marshal's Office as "undetermined."

"We are confident the fire started on the exterior third-floor deck," York said. "I can't tell you what, exactly, caused the fire."

He said the deck no longer exists.

The deck where the fire started was outside an occupied apartment. A tenant lived in a fourth-floor apartment, and the second floor was vacant. The tattoo shop INK-4-LIFE was on the first floor, along with a wireless phone business.

Building owner John Weeks did not return a phone call Friday. State and local fire officials said they do not know whether his insurance company has looked at the building to determine whether it can be repaired.

FIRE SAFETY CONCERNS

Waterville Fire Chief David LaFountain said damage to the building would have been much less if the sprinkler system had been functioning.

"Fortunately, no one got hurt; but it makes me uncomfortable, especially on Main Street, that people are turning sprinklers off."

LaFountain said Weeks had turned the sprinkler system off several years ago when the apartments were vacant, claiming financial hardship. He said fire officials had reached an agreement with him providing that when people started living there, the sprinkler system would be turned back on.

Later, he urged Weeks to turn the sprinkler system on, as people had moved into the apartments on the upper floors of the four-story building. The Fire Department sent Weeks a letter, telling him to turn the system on, according to LaFountain.

York, of the State Fire Marshal's Office, said Friday he has not seen that letter but is aware it exists.

"I do not believe that violating that letter necessarily is a violation of a rule or statute at this point in time," York said. "It was an agreement, but I'm not sure there's any way to attach a violation to that agreement."

Jeff LaCasse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District, said Friday that the cost to building owners for hooking up a sprinkler system for private fire service depends on the size of the line going into a building.

The line going into 18 Main St. is a 6-inch line, and the cost to connect to the sprinkler system was $987 per year before 2005, when the sprinkler system was shut off, LaCasse said. The rates increased April 1, so the cost to hook up to that building now would be $1,036, he said.

LaCasse emphasized that when someone asks for a line to be turned off, the Water District requires notification from the building owner's insurance company, as well as a note from the local fire department, saying it is aware the service is off.

"Just about all of them (downtown buildings) have sprinkler systems; not all are active," he said.

LaFountain said at a recent City Council meeting that four are inactive.

WHEN ARE SPRINKLERS REQUIRED?

Rich McCarthy, assistant state fire marshal, said building owners are responsible for making sure their buildings are up to code and following fire and life safety codes.

Before they buy a building, they should check with fire officials to determine whether a sprinkler system is required.

(Continued on page 2)

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