State orders alarms fixed at high-rise Tenant's complaint led fire marshal to complex for disabled

'We don't feel safe'

Apartment manager says fears of reprisals are groundless

February 27, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The state fire marshal has ordered a Westminster high-rise to repair a faulty fire alarm system immediately.

Responding to a resident's complaint, a deputy fire marshal investigated the system Wednesday and found problems on the sixth floor of Locust House, a seven-story apartment complex for the elderly and disabled.

"The inspection did find the fire alarm system to be faulty on the sixth floor," said Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Bob Thomas. "The sound alarm was not working. The deputy issued an emergency order to correct the problem by Wednesday."

Several of the 16 tenants on that floor said the alarm and an attached intercom system had not worked for six months. Mary Brown, a seventh-floor resident, said many tenants will not complain for fear of reprisals.

"There are a lot of elderly people here in panic," said Ms. Brown. "They won't go to the manager because they are so afraid of eviction."

Gordon MacPhee, senior property manager for Humphrey Management Co. of Silver Spring, which operates Locust House, said that was not true.

"We have not had one eviction in 15 years," he said.

A longtime sixth-floor tenant who asked not to be identified said Mr. MacPhee might be too far removed from the everyday operations to understand tenants' fears.

"I never complained because there is a chance of reprisals; they TC could make me move," she said. "When I go to sleep at night, I never know if there might be a fire and I won't hear an alarm."

Another tenant said she moved to a sixth-floor unit a few months ago and only recently learned that the system wasn't working. Although each unit has a smoke detector, the woman, who also asked for anonymity, said she does not feel secure without hallway alarms.

"It upsets me that I wasn't told when I came here," she said. "It is a dan gerous situation, and I am concerned for my safety."

Complaints from a few tenants -- including a certified letter to the building manager -- went unanswered.

"They have allowed people who are in wheelchairs, or on oxygen or hard of hearing to live in unsafe conditions for months," said Mike Melsheimer, president of the tenants association.

"People in this building go to sleep every night with an inadequate protection system."

Mr. Melsheimer said he notified the fire marshal Feb. 20. Several tenants also contacted Westminster Mayor Kenneth Yowan, who plans to summarize their concerns in a letter to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Relations.

"I hope we can help shed some light on the issues," the mayor said.

Humphrey Management is planning to replace its 15-year-old fire alarm system throughout the building with one that is "above and beyond fire code requirements," said Mr. MacPhee, who said he was unaware of problems with alarms until last week.

The present system operates only in the building's hallways; the new one will be wired into all 98 units in the downtown Westminster building.

Crews have repaired the sixth-floor unit, and the building is in full compliance with code regulations, Mr. MacPhee said yesterday.

"A relay in the system was not working properly," Mr. MacPhee said. "It is fully corrected and fully functional now."

A fire marshal will return to the building tomorrow for a second inspection. Ms. Brown, who is vice president of the tenants association, plans to ask him to check the seventh floor.

"The intercom has not worked on this floor for a year," she said. "Tenants tested the fire alarm and it didn't sound."

Ms. Brown said she does not think the alarm works anywhere above the fourth floor. Every unit also has an emergency switch, but they are frequently faulty and op- erate only when the manager is on duty during business hours, Ms. Brown said.

The building has no resident manager.

"You pull the emergency cord and they don't answer," Ms. Brown said. "We don't feel safe or secure, even though we know the Fire Department could be here quickly."

In emergencies on weekends and holidays, residents have three telephone beeper numbers to call, "all completely accessible," Mr. MacPhee said.

A tenant, however, said, "One beeper doesn't work at all, and we can't always get someone on the other two."

Management wants to address any legitimate concerns of the tenants, Mr. MacPhee said, but he stressed that Locust House is an independent-living building.

"This is not assisted living or a nursing home," he said. "Residents can call 911."

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