A fire drill and inspection at the Edgartown courthouse has turned up serious deficiencies in fire safety, including an emergency exit door that was locked and impassable, an aging and unreliable smoke detector system, a lack of audible and visual fire alarms, and exit and emergency lighting that were found faulty.
Edgartown fire chief Peter Shemeth was among those who observed the drill on Dec. 30.
Speaking to the Gazette this week, Chief Shemeth said the courthouse fire safety systems are so inadequate or outdated that as a temporary measure, court officers are now required to conduct fire watch tours of the building, a fire safety routine more common in the 19th century.
“It’s a really old building and it’s showing its age,” the chief said. “The fire alarm system was installed in 1980. It’s time for an upgrade.”
The state fire marshal, the state trial court, Dukes County officials and the Edgartown fire department are working to correct the deficiencies, he said.
Jennifer Mieth, a spokesman for the state fire marshal’s office, said Thursday that the state Department of Fire Services is providing technical assistance to the Edgartown fire department in the effort to improve fire safety at the courthouse.
“Finding the problems during a drill is much better than finding them during a fire, as long as it leads to corrective action,” Ms. Mieth said.
Mr. Shemeth confirmed that the drill was ordered by Gerald Fahey, a chief officer of the state trial court in southeastern Massachusetts. Mr. Fahey declined comment on the drill as a matter of state policy, referring questions instead to a public information officer. Erika Gully-Santiago, a deputy public affairs spokesman for the court system, said Thursday that she would attempt to find further information, including a written report on the fire drill that apparently exists but was not immediately available.
Both Mr. Shemeth and county manager Martina Thornton said they did not have a copy of the report. “I was informed that there was a fire drill done and that deficiencies were found,” Ms. Thornton said in an email to the Gazette. “I met with the Edgartown fire chief and we are working together on this. We scheduled a meeting with the state officials next Thursday to go over their concerns and to make sure that all parties are in agreement on what’s needed going forward.”
Dukes County owns the Edgartown courthouse and is responsible for its maintenance, but rents about 80 per cent of the building to the commonwealth for the state trial court.
Deficiencies discovered in the late December drill included an emergency fire door that remained locked shut when the emergency push bar was activated to open the door, Chief Shemeth said.
The emergency fire door is the same door used when court officers or Dukes County sheriff’s deputies transport people who are held in state custody into the courthouse for arraignments, hearings or trials.
“That door has a safety device on it,” said Chief Shemeth. “There is a time-delay alarm.”
But according to Chief Shemeth, the door did not open as it was supposed to. The door is one of three exits on the first floor of the building, leaving only the main entrance and an emergency rear door in the register of deeds office as egress from the building.
Other deficiencies include faulty lights and signs that would help people get out of the building in the event of a fire, he said.
“Emergency lights, some functioned, some did not,” Chief Shemeth said. “Exit lights, some are functioning, some are not.”
Chief Shemeth is responsible for enforcing state fire codes and ordered the fire watch system to be instituted as a short-term protection measure. Under the fire watch system, every 15 minutes a court officer checks every room on each of the three floors of the courthouse for fire. The system was used commonly before the advent of electricity to help detect fires.
“That’s only protection for the building in the day when everybody’s there. Life safety is the number one thing,” Chief Shemeth said. “I don’t want to shut down the courthouse,” he also said.
Built in 1858, the brick courthouse had two large wings added to the original building in 1956, according to Gazette records.
There are no fire alarm pull boxes in the building that would sound an audible alarm and trigger visual strobe lights as well as sending an alarm directly to the fire department. Chief Shemeth said modern technology is available that would make the courthouse much safer, including pull boxes.
“They should be there,” he said.
There are no sprinklers in the building. State law requires sprinkler systems in new construction of public buildings the size of the courthouse (7,500 square feet or larger). The law also requires buildings to meet current building codes if they are renovated, expanded, or there is a change of use in the building. But the law does not require retrofitting sprinkler systems for buildings constructed before 1975, when current state building codes went into effect.
The only fire safety system in the building, other than fire suppression doors that deploy in case of fire to protect vital records, is a hard-wired smoke detector system. There are smoke detectors in the basement, first and second floors of the courthouse which would sound an audible alarm if smoke is detected. Installed in 1980, the detectors do not send an alarm to the fire department. Chief Shemeth considers the system unreliable and inadequate.
At one time, the courthouse was equipped with a state-of-the-art fire suppression system. Ringing the ceiling of the ornate old courtroom are frosted glass globes in wire hangers, which were deployed in many buildings or homes from about 1870 to 1940. The globes were once filled with the fire retarding chemical tetrachloromethane, and were called “fire grenades,” because they would explode when triggered by heat, and spread the chemical over the fire.
The fire suppression system was discontinued in about 1940 when it was discovered that the chemical fire retardant was harmful if inhaled or ingested, and created a gas when exposed to fire that was even more harmful.
Today the glass globes remain in the courtroom as historical artifacts, drained of the hazardous chemicals.