Sober House Fire in Worcester, Massachusetts: Officials Blame Relaxed Safety Regulations
WORCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS –
Investigators will never be able to pinpoint what caused the fires at 14 and 16 Cargill Ave., but Deputy Chief Martin Dyer believes firefighters were fortunate in the Nov. 1 incident.
Because needed safety measures at the three-story structure were not in place, things could have been considerably worse, according to Dyer.
According to Dyer, the investigation indicated that 16 Cargill, where the fire broke out on a back porch around 10 p.m., was home to 14 women and was likely being used as a sober living facility.
“It was not officially registered (as a sober living facility),” Dyer said.
Because four or more unrelated people were residing at 16 Cargill, Dyer believes the structure should have been equipped with sprinklers, just like a lodging house.
He claims that a previous lawsuit in Fitchburg established that cities and municipalities have the legal authority to require sprinklers in sober living facilities and that this is necessary because people in recovery are less likely to advocate for themselves and are more vulnerable.
According to the lawsuit, the city of Fitchburg’s efforts to enforce the state Fire Safety Act, which resulted in an arbitrary expense, jeopardized the recovery of those suffering from alcoholism and addiction.
Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit determined that sober homes do not have the right to avoid the Fire Safety Act’s enforcement.
“We support people in recovery and it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see them affected by fire,” Dyer said.
According to Dyer, the fire originated on a back patio, most likely on the first level.
It was a windy night, so the flames immediately spread to 14 Cargill Ave, forcing 15 people from the three-story apartment building to flee into the street.
Dyer noticed a lack of a fire alarm system at 16 Cargill.
Despite the presence of smoke detectors, he believes that an alert system would have been required for sober living residents to be safe.
The structure also lacked the requisite sprinklers, which would have helped in a dangerous fire like this one, according to Dyer.
The wind was fanning the already strongly engaged fire, making inside operations risky, according to Dyer. Firefighters attacked the flames defensively and couldn’t initially get inside the building because the wind was fanning the already heavily involved fire, making interior efforts unsafe.
This made it more difficult for them to look for possible trapped victims.
“There were some working smoke alarms, and it was early enough, 10 o’clock, that people were up, thank God,” Dyer said. “It was a very dangerous fire… we were very lucky that night.”
The building’s owner, Thomas Demeo of Bedford, could not be reached for comment, but Dyer said if he decides to rebuild, he will be required to add a sprinkler system.
He’ll be cited for code infractions as well.
As they respond to medical emergencies and other non-fire concerns, city firefighters, according to Dyer, are continuously on the alert for potentially dangerous circumstances.
They listen to smoke detectors that are beeping and chat with residents about replacing the batteries.
They’ve also discovered a couple of sober living places they weren’t aware of.
Some are in three-story apartment complexes, which are notorious for being among the most dangerous places to fight flames due to their balloon-style architecture, which allows a fire to jump from floor to floor quickly.
Many building owners make alterations without informing public safety officers, who may be forced to rush inside in an emergency.
“The landscape has changed,” Dyer said. “We used to pull up and it was three floors, three families, all the same, but that’s changed and we never know what’s behind the door.”
Each room is occupied by one person in sober living facilities, but the kitchen and restrooms on each floor are shared.
16 Cargill, according to city records, has ten bedrooms and three bathrooms.
After a 1990 fire in which three clients from the state Department of Mental Health perished, Dyer said the city changed the requirements for sober living facilities.
He recalled a fire at the Main Street Central Lodging House, which was far more terrible, as evidence of the need for lodging houses and sober living facilities to be regulated.
“It’s been extremely successful,” he said. “The number of deaths has gone down, but I think people have forgotten why we did this.”
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