Lt. Annmarie Pickett, Worcester Fire Department, Fire Safety Overview

Lt. Annmarie Pickett of the Worcester Fire Department spoke to the Worcester Group on February 11, 2015 about fire safety.

This is part of the Worcester Rental Real Estate Networking and Training series.

Fire Safety and Code Teaser Transcript

[Start 0:00:00]

Annmarie: Thank you for having me here. There are some familiar faces in the crowd. If anybody has heard me speak or present, I’ve been doing this presentation for fire education since 2008. I’ve been a paramedic for the City of Worcester and I’m a lieutenant on the fire department, going on 30 years, so I’m coming to the end of my career [laughter].

One of my goals here tonight is to let you know a couple of different things about the resources you have available. I am a mother. I am a landlord. I am a property owner in Worcester, and I never rented so I don’t have that end of spectrum. I’m not afraid to say I don’t know to answer your questions, but I will give you all, and I did make about 100 copies of this. It’s a great website for information on residential sprinklers, and I superimposed by business card on there, so you have my email. If you have any questions for your own unique environments, I answer my emails every day.

The second thing I brought for you for your tenants is fire safety that’s seasonal right now. It’s heating fire safety. It’s in both English and Spanish, but again there’s an excellent website on here. It’s mass.gov, the fire marshal’s website where they have fire safety tips A to Z. We have some posted on our city website as well, and they also have links that you can get fire safety information in over 30 languages.

Now if you have a one-unit that you’re renting out or 100 units that you’re renting out and you’d like me to speak or present a generic fire safety informational to your tenants, it would be my pleasure. That’s what I do. I try to research my audience and find out what I need to make a priority and get the messages out.

First off, it doesn’t really matter if you live in a million dollar home or if you’re living in a shelter. We understand fire. We understand the elements that come together to make it, and we understand it’s predictable once it gets going. Most of these fires are also preventable.

On my desk and I don’t know if you’re aware of this, I brought with me – I asked him to pull up this YouTube clip. I’m going to start with this because this is really why I do what I do. This is called a modern-day room fire versus legacy room fire.

Doug: [unintelligible 0:02:50].

Annmarie: Okay, so that’s fine. I will get to that in a second.

Every 4 hours in this country, a civilian will die from fire. Every 4 hours in this country, a civilian will die from fire. We’re not a Third World country. I get these reports across my desk every single day. In the State of Massachusetts, we’re up to six I think since the beginning of the year. In Worcester, the second largest city in New England, I need something [unintelligible 0:03:19] we haven’t had a fire fatality in the City of Worcester since September of 2011. I think the educational messages are getting out. I’m certainly on Jordan Levy. I’m on other TV shows, and I present anywhere. I don’t care if it’s an audience of one or 100 like I said.

Most fires happen in your home, a place you should feel safe in the middle of the night. In over 50 percent of the fire death reports that I read, they did not have a working smoke alarm and practiced two ways out. Some of the houses I visit, I might visit some of your properties because I speak at the senior center. If you rent to a senior, they might say, “Annie, can you come by and do a home visit?”

I say, “Sure!”

Some of the properties I go into, some of the landlords will say, “Well, I put the smoke alarms up and the batteries are out.”

If you would like me to visit your property and have a talk with your tenants about removing the batteries from the smoker or CO alarms, or any other protection, it would be my pleasure.

Sometimes I get to the root of the problem why do you do that. Sometimes it’s just the wrong technology and the wrong place. It could be an ionization detector in the kitchen, and it goes off all the time. Our old houses, I mean 54 percent of our houses in Worcester were built before the 1940s. We’re an old community, a city of hills. Fire spreads very quickly.

[0:05:03]

Did you find it?

Doug: Do any of these look familiar?

Annmarie: It’s Underwriter Laboratory Modern-day, just Modern Day…

Doug: Modern-day room fire versus legacy‑

Annmarie: Legacy room fire. Put legacy room.

Doug: Legacy room fire.

Annmarie: Yeah. If we can’t find it, I’ll just explain this clip real quick, too.

Doug: Wow. That’s [unintelligible 0:05:21].

Annmarie: Yeah, okay. So new versus old, legacy. Hit the – yeah. This is where we’re going to run this for a couple of minutes. In our homes ‑ I bought my house in 1988 – in our homes, 25 years ago, we had natural fibers, cotton. Nowadays, we have synthetics and polyvinyl that people stuff in the homes. A small fire, whether it be from an unattended candle, a space heater that doesn’t have enough space, somebody who left the stovetop while cooking, a small fire will bring the room. It’s the smoke that these polyvinyls and synthetics give off and rooms will flashover and flashover means everything comes to temperature off gases and just flash ignites. In just 3 minutes, 3 minutes, rooms are flashing over.

The legacy room is the old materials, the cottons, the natural fibers, and the modern room is what we have now. You see a little bit more of the flame in a legacy room, but what you see in a modern room is this thick black smoke, and that’s what brings up the heat in the room, 1,200 degrees at the ceiling. We are seeing buildings flashing over before we get in there or as we’re getting there.

This is really important because 50 percent of the time, you can increase your chances of surviving if you have a fire in your home with a working smoke alarm and a practiced escape plan, which means the alarms need to be in place with batteries. If the units are over 10 years old, they need to be replaced. They need to be within 10 feet of the bedrooms. They have to wake people up so you can get out because your nose goes to sleep at night. Everybody’s does.

It doesn’t matter if you’re renting or owning. You need this protection. They need two ways out. So many times I see one way out, and then the other way blocked with furniture, or storage, or worse yet they leave the backdoor to your apartments open, which allows people to enter it.

Talk to your tenants about smoke alarms, about the importance of carbon monoxide alarms, about the importance of two ways out and making sure it’s always clear, about the importance of keeping that backdoor locked to keep people out, and the importance of keeping the trash clean from around the house. Those are all opportunities for people walking by. Have well-lit areas of your property.

This room here it’s 2 minutes and 36 seconds in going up. Our average response times here on Worcester 4 to 6 minutes. Now this is an open room in a demonstration. I have another one for sprinkled versus non-sprinkled building, too. But basically everything in this room is going to come up to temperature off gas and ignite. This is what we have in our homes nowadays.

When I was asked to speak to you, I’m hoping that you all go home to your place tonight and make sure your alarms are working. Make sure you have the two ways out. My mother is like, “You don’t have to shovel my back steps.”

I’m like, “Yeah, mom, I do. You need two ways out. Let’s hope you don’t use it.”

Here’s the off-gassing 3 minutes and 20 seconds into it, and that room is about to explode. Nobody survives that, not even [unintelligible 0:09:02]. Nobody survives those conditions.

You can stop that. I just want that.

That’s what we’re dealing with today, and that’s why the smoke alarm, the practiced home escape plan, the residential sprinklers, that’s why this is so important. But like I started off by saying we understand fire and it’s predictable. Most of these fires are preventable.

Number 1 – anybody want to guess number 1 reason why we go out to residential home fires? Number 1 reason, anybody want to guess?

Audience: Cigarette smoke.

Annmarie: Cigarette smoke, excellent but no.

Audience: Cooking.

Annmarie: Cooking! Kitchen is still the hot spot. This is what we say: stand by your pan. I actually had my tenant upstairs [laughter] – I’m not going to sing the song.

Audience: Just one verse.

Annmarie: Stand by your pan. But you know I have props that I bring. I have giveaways, potholders, jar openers, and other things; rulers because I teach the grownups to keep their children 3 feet away because that’s a big huge scalding injury, but stand by your pan. Stand by your pan and that will prevent most of these fires from happening.

If there is a stovetop fire, put the lid on it. Turn the burner off, leave it alone. Somebody asked me earlier about fire extinguishers and what kind of fire extinguisher should I get for my apartments.

[0:10:31]

I was like, “Well, it depends on what you’re trying to protect. I can tell you with the synthetics and polyvinyl we have in our homes today, I’d like you to get the kind of fire extinguisher that they can bang the door down to get out [laughter]. That’s really what they’re used for nowadays is to make sure you have a clear path out.

So many times people think they can put out a fire with a fire extinguisher. They’ll use the wrong one for grease fire. One drop of water expands 1700 times; your whole kitchens are gone. The other ones can plunge in and push the fire up to the wall, and again it’s been breached in the cabinetry.

I did bring this with me because first off let me say we’re going to come back fully armed. We all get out of work at 5 o’clock. I was going to bring somebody from code. I was going to bring somebody from inspectional services, but until we really know what’s going on because some of these new codes were just since January 1st and everybody has to get on the same page, then we’ll come back, and I promise you in the meantime, you’ll have my email if you have any questions.

I have the latest technology. This is the over-the-stovetop canister. It’s $17 apiece. This magnets on the range above the stovetop, and it protects the stovetop area. It has a little nipple on it if you will, and that melts when it comes up to temperature, and it will deploy an even agent over a pan fire, over a stovetop fire.

Rich: Doug is actually bringing up a video of it now.

Annmarie: Doug, find me – it’s dry chemical agent in here that’s safe to go over. There’s your range. It’s magneted up; $17 apiece. Most of the Worcester public housing units have these in them.

Audience: Where can you get them?

Annmarie: I don’t endorse any one kind. You can go online. I think Home Depot, Lowe’s, most of the hardware stores might sell them, or you can get them. This one is called FireStop Range Queen. This other one is called FireStop in a Can. You can just Google it.

Can you go to Safe-T-Element for me, please? Safe S-A-F-E T-Element.

Audience: [unintelligible 0:12:56].

Annmarie: Can I have my water? Thank you.

Male Audience 1: Is there a type of fuel [unintelligible 0:13:05] gas fuel?

Annmarie: Gas, electric. It’s all the heating. That is your ignition. That is your ignition, but I can tell you there’s a new technology that I’m going to show you now called Safe-T-Element. This only is for electric stoves right now, electric stovetops. I don’t know what that is [laughter].

Basically the Safe-T-Element is perfect, and this is where my email will help you guys because you can say like for example one person contacted me and said, “You know we both live in this apartment. We love being here, but I noticed my husband is starting to get early Alzheimer’s. He gets up in the middle of the night and starts to make tea and forgets.”

Well, this is the Safe-T-Element, now – yeah, it is – and this retrofits into an electric range. This is a little bit more costly. It’s about $250 a unit, but if you have it down on a new unit, it’s a little bit less. What this does is the coils never get above like say 300 degrees. It will still boil water, cook your gravy, your pasta, whatever you want to make, but it will not ignite a piece of paper on it while you’re boiling the water. It doesn’t come up to that ignition temperature of clothing, which by the way just seniors reaching over making tea is the number 1 reason why their clothes catches on fire. This is different technology to look into.

One of my colleges and we have many in Worcester, we had a problem with microwaves. Microwaves, go figure. First off, ramen noodles and mac and cheese need water. So I found out who my audience was and that’s what they needed to hear, but it was the landlords that are like these are fire responses. These are complacency because none of them get out of the building because they say so and so is just microwave cooking, but there’s also a sensor from this company, and I got one of the area colleges to outfit all of the apartments in the surrounding and the college with this sensor, and it plugs into the wall and the microwave plugs into it, and the first with the smoke shuts the whole unit down.

[0:15:18]

Audience: What [unintelligible 0:15:19]?

Annmarie: This is Safe T Sensor’s Safe-T-Element. Safe-T-Element is the corporation; Safe-T-Sensor is one of the products they make. But this is just one of many different technologies that are out there because education is rich, and it’s really great, but alone, it’s weak. We need the codes. We need the laws to enforce it, and we also need the technology to back it up as well. I have the resources for you. Please reach out and ask for it. Yes?

Male Audience 2: I think one thing would be really helpful for me would be we need cheat sheets. I need to know are all the different types you say ionization, I need to know what the difference between ionization is and the old type, the carbon monoxide, the combination monoxide with ionization. They come in five, or six, or seven different ways, and every time the code changes, there’s a new device. We really need simple clear concise cheat sheets for what the hell these things do, how they do it, where they go, how many feet from this and that.

Also now they have definitive life cycles. After 5 years, or 3 years, or 7 years, they’ll start beeping and they won’t stop even after you’d changed the batteries. We need to know stuff like that. This should be written right on the unit. We shouldn’t have to be digging through manuals and looking at the back of the units, the tiny little type etch. They really need to. It’s the human aspect that’s missing, that really keeps it simple and educate people.

Annmarie: I 100 percent agree with you. When I started the ionization photoelectric, but you know some people would say, “I don’t need a carbon monoxide alarm. What is carbon monoxide? I have nothing that will produce it.” We’ve had houses breached with carbon monoxide poisoning from a house next door. Yeah, it’s a poison, deadly gas you can’t see or smell. You need it. As far as what goes where, you now have a connection. I promise you if you email me, I will help you to the best I can. I do this all the time. I held over 800 educational/learning workshops.

I know a lot about fire prevention. If you’re going to sell your house, that’s when they do the regulations on, the smoke and CO alarms. We were able to do a little courtesy walkthrough and let you know. Many realtors are versed in this, very well-versed in this of what is expected on home sales.

Sandra: One of the things that would be really helpful to landlords is if the fire department and its personnel – well we know that you’re stretched thin, but a lot of the problems that we have are the tenants as you said before taking out the batteries. But along with that also are the means of egress, and I have this in one particular building where they seem to be taking these bins of clothing.

They send them overseas, and it would be helpful if the fire department could let the tenants know that the fine is going to come to them as opposed to us. We’re not the ones that are taking the batteries out of the smoke detectors or the COs. We’re not taking them down and throwing them away, and we’re not the ones that are blocking the egresses, and as many times as I told my tenants, “You can’t do this. This is a fire safety.”

It’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, okay.”

Female Audience 1: [unintelligible 0:18:50].

Annmarie: Well, now you have somebody who will go there and will say that. I’m usually the good guy, first off. I don’t inspect or enforce. I’ll refer it to people. If I see a life code, I have to make immediate correction, I will but I’ve gone to bat for different – well, I’ve worked with the landlord’s association in one of the area colleges, and I have worked with the on-and-off campus and the neighborhood people of this one specific college. It was a great experience. This landlord was so awesome. He’s like, “I have five properties up here. Will you please come and do a walkthrough.”

One day it was with the students making pancakes, and he had smoke alarms in every room. I was like, “You don’t need one there. That’s probably why they’re getting aggravated and taking the battery out. You know that’s the wrong technology.”

You’re 100 percent right, and it needs to be easier. I’ve tried to put up signs at Home Depot and Lowe’s because not only does it matter building to building, but it’s jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It’s very frustrating. There’s no outside burning here in Worcester, yet they sell these fire pits. I try to say to them, “Please post that Worcester residents are not allowed to outside burn.”

[0:20:08]

One of the new codes that I can talk about is barbeque grills. You can’t store the propane in the house anymore, in the porch. The grills need to be 10 feet away from the home and can’t be above the first level with another enclosed roof. This is radiant heat, and that’s the number one cause for fire spread.

But I can try to help you with a specific thing that you’re working on anybody in this room because I do understand that it can be a bit overwhelming. One alarm detects smoldering fires. One alarm detects flickering flames. Then you need a heat and rate-of-rise, and outs, so I get it. I really do, but it’s also dependent on which type of property you’re protecting, the contents of the property, whether it’s sprinkled or not. If you give me your property and you give me your questions, I can research it for you. Yes?

Male Audience 2: Going back to what he was talking about the CO2 and the carbon detectors‑

Annmarie: [unintelligible 0:21:17].

Male Audience 2: Yeah. Four years and 3 months, I had plenty of them all go, and I went and bought the batteries that required for them, put them all in there. They still kept on beeping, but it’s quite a cost, but nowhere did it say that it was going to expire exactly under 5 years.

Annmarie: Yes, well‑

Male Audience 2: [inaudible 0:21:34] lawsuit and just liability and [inaudible 0:21:43] action. Also I think you know why these things happen.

Annmarie: There are certain things that I recall that I do get across my desk, but there is paperwork and I know nobody likes to read paperwork. I don’t like to read paperwork, but the paperwork is for the specific thing that you bought, and there’s many different brands of technology. I would want to know what technology I bought. There are burn-on dates on the back of CO alarms and smoke alarms now. Smoke alarms 10 years, that’s the recommended replace the whole unit.

Male Audience 2: No, it’s not just about recommended. It’s built into the design.

Annmarie: Okay, so I can’t speak for every single different design of the‑

Male Audience 2: A computer malfunctions after X amount of years.

Annmarie: But, sir, you might be talking about one specific brand; well there are other brands. I visit people’s homes. I have a wall of shame that I’ve taken down smoke alarms that are 20 years old. You push that button, and it goes [unintelligible 0:22:39]. Is it working? Not as loud, not as predictable, not as fast, but then there is some that will shut the whole unit down. Carbon monoxide 5 to 7 years, and that’s a big window, 5 to 7 years. If you have a digital readout, it will E-N-D, END, . It could E-O-9, EO9. It could read ERR. It could be giving you a number that you’ll be in poison. People don’t know but there are so many different brands; and this where education really needs to come into the mix. I wish there was just one, easy. There aren’t.

Male Audience 3: I want to know how many different variants [unintelligible 0:23:26] Home Depot, you will buy a Kidde. You have no choice. You know there are [unintelligible 0:23:31] but they were all made by manufacturer.

Annmarie: Kidde.

Male Audience 3: The price is cheaper more than the other.

Annmarie: Yeah, this is First Alert. That’s not Kidde.

Male Audience 3: I believe it is.

Annmarie: Is it? Again, I’m not afraid to say I don’t know.

Male Audience 3: A lot of them [unintelligible 0:23:44].

Male Audience 4: I don’t know if we’re going to blame [unintelligible 0:23:46] ‑

Annmarie: Yeah.

Male Audience 4: For that personally.

Annmarie: Well, no but I’m just saying. I mean this is why when you don’t want to read your – you should know what you’re getting. You should know what you’re getting.

Daniel: Question is what is the recourse of a landlord if a tenant breaks a clause in the lease that specifically is not allowed? For instance, he has an electric heater where the lease says you’re not allowed to. You have trash on the porch where the lease says you cannot have that. I know I can evict the tenant based on that, but that’s an aggravation to the landlord. Now we are faced with a vacancy. Is there a fee or kind of formal inspection that you guys go that says okay tenant you cannot do this.

Annmarie: That’s an excellent question. For certain things, that would be a violation, yes depending on what the violation is. Space heaters aren’t illegal; kerosene space heaters not vented are, so that I could go in there and I can say, make sure it’s plugged into a plug that can handle it; no extension cords, power strips used for other appliances. Make sure things are shut off. Wear and tear on cords, no running them, tenants or anybody homeowners.

[0:25:02]

I just visited a senior’s home, and they had two power strips plugged into an extension cord. They didn’t want it to be trip hazard a trip hazard. Extension cords run under the carpets through doorways. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these, and the latest craze with teenagers is the lights zapping around.

My son, I was like, “Where are the Christmas light?”

He said, “Well, I’m using them upstairs you know.”

I was like, “Take them down.”

These are fire hazards that people are doing in your properties, but they’re also doing them in their own homes for homeowners. People are doing this all over the place. I can educate them on space heaters need to refit a space, but if you have it in your rental, I don’t want this in my property, then that’s your only recourse whatever you set unless they’re breaking a code law where we can’t store propane inside or things like that, and there are many of those. I hope that answers your question. Does that answer? Okay.

Tatiana: I think the real question was if we invite you and the tenant has this violation, would you give fee, some kind of penalty to the tenant‑

Audience: Fine.

Tatiana: Fine to the tenant?

Annmarie: Well, it depends on what it is. That’s what I said.

Tatiana: Well, if they have propane‑

Audience: Right.

Tatiana: For example in the basement, so‑

Annmarie: I’ll forward it to our inspectional services. They send out an inspector.

Tatiana: Okay.

Annmarie: Yes. And who will get fined?

Annmarie: Depending on what the violation is. They’ll try to get a hold of the landlord and find out the situation. It depends on what it is. If it’s not two means of egress, there are complaints for trash.

Tatiana: No, no. Have you ever experienced a situation when tenant did some kind of violation like removing for example a smoke detector, and city gave fine to the tenant?

Annmarie: I have not, but that’s not what I do, but there are fines that we can give for any type of altering with your fire protection.

Tatiana: To the tenant?

Annmarie: Yes, to a tenant. I speak for the housing authority. They make their workshops mandatory for their tenants, and I will go and I will speak to them. That’s the last thing I want to say is you can be fined. What I would rather do is get people to understand and to buy in. This will increase your chances of surviving by more than 50 percent. You don’t have a chance of surviving a home fire in the middle of the night without one. I think that in the long term, that’s the behavior change that we’re seeking. Somebody…

Female Audience 2: To change the subject for a moment, can you just address the issue with snow removal in the fire hydrants outside?

Annmarie: Well, that’s really a hard topic right now because of all the snow, and I have tried to get the message out: shovel your hydrants. Your property depends on it whether you’re a business owner, a tenant, or a property owner, it’s your property, your life that you could be saving by shoveling out your hydrants. We need a couple of feet all the way around it for access.

Yes, we will go there with the stick because we have a map and we know roughly where it is, and we will try to find your hydrant, and then we will shovel it out, but rooms are flashing over in 3 minutes and we’re just about pulling up. If you can imagine what another 3 to 4 minutes does while we try to find your hydrant and shovel it, I mean it’s just crazy to think about.

I’ve been driving through the City of Worcester, and everybody thinks that somebody is just going to come and shovel it. The water department takes care and maintains the hydrants. The fire department uses them, but businesses aren’t shoveling, and it’s like lessons learned.

I drove by a business that had a major fire a couple of years ago, and their hydrants are not shoveled. I mean I make sure mine are. On my street, there’s an adopt a hydrant program, and I always make sure mine are and the elderly gentleman that I live next to since the early ‘80s, I take care of the one that would protect his home, too. But really it’s up to you to shovel and clean your hydrants. We also need like 8.5 feet of clearance to get up the street. We need to see your house number is visible from the street. That’s the law.

Male Audience 5: Two questions, one you were talking about a lot about students and there are quite a few here. Do you do presentations at the schools, at the colleges especially at the beginning of the school year?

Annmarie: Holy Cross is great. I see every single one of those kids late summer on a Sunday. WPI, we visit the frat houses on Sundays. I mean I work for 10-hour- days a week, but college kids that’s not fit into their schedule. We’ve done a cooking competition with the college kids. We think about creative ways. I’ve been at the college crawl on Shrewsbury Street, presenting to college kids. I know I recognize this is a very big large number, and not for nothing but it’s over 80 percent of the college fatalities happen off campus. There’s a couple of hundred, 300 across the country every year of college kids that die in fire. Usually it’s the older and the younger that are much more vulnerable, but there’s definitely alcohol.

[0:30:37]

Somebody had said something about cigarettes, and I just want to point out for any of you that owns because I have one of those old houses in Worcester. Mine is two-family, but none proper disposal of [inaudible 0:30:50].

Audience: Time’s up [laughter].

Annmarie: Okay [laughter].

Rich: That’s one way to end the meeting [laughter].

Annmarie: I’ve seen an increase in outside fires, and part of my job is I look for trends in target neighborhoods, and you might get something in one of your mailboxes from me. It just means [intelligible 0:31:17] was in your neighborhood doing like what’s called an informational sweep. You had a fire recent. We can’t talk about that, but we try to prevent it especially if it’s a bunch of houses with chimney fire, so we’ll get some chimney information out there, but improper disposal of smoking materials, it was huge across the city.

Business got the message on have the noncombustible smoking area away from the building. They kept their vegetation away from the building, their mulch away from the building, trash away from the building, and said smoke here.

But residents, if you’re a landlord and you have a smoker in your building, you say, “I don’t want you smoking in the house.” They might honor that. Or they might go and hide in the back porch and flick it over to the back porch, and the consequence of that process, of one cigarette will take out a whole house is just they don’t think about that.

There’s also some technology. If you know you have a smoker, there are some cigarette butt cans that will extinguish it. I mean I’m wracking my head around this one. I don’t know how to mitigate this one. We see it all the time. We see spikes in like November and again in June when the vegetation is dry. So, any?

Rich: Well, I doubt we could probably ask you questions all night.

Annmarie: Yeah, I’m sorry, yeah.

Rich: So Lt. Pickett has a whole stack of handouts here. I would definitely encourage everybody to grab one on your way out. There’s a lot of important information. Her personal contact information is on there, and you said everybody could call and email you all day long, right?

Annmarie: Well, my phone number is not on there because I’m never in the office. That’s the only reason why, but this email, I check my emails every day. I do, even when I’m off, even when I’m not working. Unusually it will take me a day to get back to you because I have about 100 a day when I go in first thing in the morning.

Rich: Oh my Lord! All right, well thank you very much [applause].

[End 0:33:23]

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