EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 2, 2012

Salisbury calls off fire watch, saves town over $1,000 a day

State denies it ordered firefighters to stand watch at 2 businesses

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SALISBURY –” As of yesterday, Salisbury firefighters are no longer providing a fire watch at a local businesses at taxpayer expense, saving the town over about $1,000 a day.

Due to a snafu involving the incomplete connection of sprinkler systems at the businesses, beginning Sept. 7 one Salisbury firefighter had been stationed at each of two Route 110 businesses owned by Bruce Arakelian, the Sylvan Street Grille Restaurant and Vision Max movie complex, which have a total capacity of 1,980 people. As of yesterday the cost of that watch is estimated to be around $27,000 that the town of Salisbury picked up for Arakelian.

Town Manager Neil Harrington said the controversial watch was begun because Salisbury officials believed an official in the state Fire Marshal’s office had ordered it during discussions with Salisbury Building Inspector Dave Lovering. Harrington said yesterday’s watch removal came after Salisbury Fire Chief Rick Souliotis resolved any misunderstanding about the issue with the state Fire Marshal.

According to Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the state Fire Marshal, in early September the Salisbury building inspector called the agency to discuss concerns about the lack of an operating sprinkler system at two related properties in town. The state Fire Marshal’s office denied that it ever ordered the town to put town firefighters on the watch.

“We then also reached out to the Salisbury fire chief to share the building official’s concerns,” Mieth said. “The decision to order a fire watch was made by local authorities.”

My understanding is it was taken as a precautionary measure until a final course of action could be determined.”

Neither of Arakelian’s buildings are fire hazard or unsafe and neither building is currently required to have sprinkler systems.

However, Arakelian decided to voluntarily upgrade the buildings by installing sprinklers throughout about three years ago. The controversial and expensive problem of the firefighter watch arose when town inspectors realized that the partially installed sprinkler system wasn’t connected to a water source.

Town officials believed that because the sprinklers themselves were installed and are visible in the ceilings, people patronizing the businesses had the expectation that the systems were working. Harrington said one of the options given to Lovering by the Fire Marshal’s office was to place a paid firefighter at each building when it was open for business to monitor constantly for fire.

Harrington decided to have the town pay for it because he felt that the town’s former fire inspector had not told Arakelian that he had to get the system connected as quickly as possible.

Mieths said discussions ensued between Lovering and the Fire Marshal’s office over the town’s options. However, she said Salisbury officials didn’t request someone come to Salisbury to investigate the situations at Arakelian’s buildings. As a result, she said no formal order for a fire watch came for the Fire Marshal.

At this point in time, Mieths could not confirm what was said by whom in the Fire Marshal’s office that led town officials to believe the watch was necessary. The decision to enact the watch, she said, was “a local decision.”

For Harrington, this costly experience points to internal issues that he’s hoping to resolve.

“One of the lessons of this tempest in a teapot is the lack of co-ordination on the part of the town among the two department heads who should have been involved in making the decision, and I will take the responsibility for that,” Harrington said yesterday. “Ultimately, the buck stops at my office and I’m responsible for making the decision to put on the fire watch. At the time I felt I needed to err on the side of caution to protect the patrons at these establishments and the town’s liability should there have been a fire.”

Harrington said to ensure a similar situation doesn’t manifest itself again the situation that led to this problem can’t be swept under the run, but must be aired.

“We’re all going to have to sit down in a room and have a debriefing so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Harrington said.

Harrington also believes that this situation is being overblown by many who may have an ulterior motive, namely not liking decisions Lovering has made in the past in relations to building inspections.

“This is being used to fan the flames of discontent by some in town who don’t like Dave Lovering and who are trying to drive him out of town,” Harrington said.