BELLEFONTE — Some members of Borough Council are in favor of mandating sprinkler systems in downtown buildings, and a task force will be convened to study that option and other preventative measures.
“We have done a lot to get to where we are, and we are going to do more,” said Borough Manager Ralph Stewart after Monday’s meeting. “We will not turn our back on saying that we’ve done enough. We want to reach out to find more resources, more ways to protect both people and property.”
The task force was the recommendation from Stewart on Monday and was approved unanimously by the Borough Council. It was the first time it had come together since fire devastated the Hotel Do De last week and damaged the Garman Opera House Theatre.
The focus of the hourlong discussion revolved around not just sprinklers but prevention measures like code enforcement, fire walls or electronic monitoring systems that alert 911.
The discussion drew more than a dozen residents and property owners, including one woman who said she’s had trouble getting a quote for a sprinkler system and a man who installed an electronic alert system instead of sprinklers.
The makeup of the task force will be determined later. Borough Council wanted to make sure property owners are a part of the task force.
The strongest remarks during the discussion came from council President Frank Halderman, who offered his support for sprinklers in downtown buildings.
He went into specifics, throwing out numbers in saying he’s in favor of a bond, such as $2 million to $5 million, financing sprinkler system installations. The payback period could be whatever the property owner needs, such as two years or 10 years.
“I don’t think we can afford to lose any more of our buildings downtown,” Halderman said.
The sprinkler systems would need to be affordable, and he would not want to see property owners have to close down their buildings because they can’t afford the sprinkler systems, he said.
Halderman also wants to the task force to put together a list of the buildings that could be the biggest fire hazards.
Councilman Walt Schneider voiced his support for sprinkler systems, but he said preventing fires and protecting lives and buildings is much larger in scope.
He said that takes cooperation from lots of people, like Borough Council, police and fire personnel, the code enforcement officers, property owners and tenants, and the public.
For instance, he said the fire companies should increase their outreach and public education. Police should notify the code officers if they see a hazard when they’re responding to an incident. The same goes for people in the community who see something.
Schneider said that goes hand in hand with the other prevention measures, like installing fire walls or fire ceilings, an electronic monitoring system, and sprinklers.
“It is an excellent way to combat the fire problem in a building with respect to both life safety and property conservation,” he said. “However, it’s part of a systemic solution.”
Borough Council did not vote on implementing those measures, as the details of the task force will be worked out in future council meetings.
Among the folks who came to the work session was Bellefonte attorney Rodney Beard, who runs his law office on the first floor of a brownstone building on the downtown diamond. Beard is the borough’s solicitor but did not speak as the solicitor.
He said he was pleased with the discussion and came because he was interested in what the Borough Council would look at to retain the investments in the downtown.
“I don’t think a knee-jerk reaction ... would be the appropriate response,” he said, adding that moving to form a task force is a good start. “We need to stick with it and not get complacent.”
Beard said he had sprinklers installed in his building in 2010 after seeing the old wiring inside it.
Downtown property owner Ron Wiser told Borough Council about the monitoring system he had installed in the Crider Exchange on Allegheny Street. When the system detects a problem, like fire or heat, it triggers an alert to an operator in New York, who then notifies Centre County 911.
It cost him almost $40,000, but he said it helps him “sleep at night.” In all, he has five systems installed in his downtown buildings.
Nancy Noll, who owns a bed and breakfast in the borough, told the council she hopes they consider the need for protection in the residential section of town. She said she’s had trouble finding someone to give her a quote for a sprinkler system, and the council members said they’d like to develop a list and put it on their website.
This is the second task force the borough has convened in the wake of a fire in a historic building.
One was formed after the Bush House fire in 2006, and the group made a number of recommendations including fire education, the installation of sprinklers within 10 years and adopting code changes.
Borough officials did not adopt the sprinkler mandate, and said they’ve done everything they could have done with the resources they have.
Also Monday, Bellefonte Fire Chief Tim Schreffler said investigators are still working to determine the cause.
Schreffler said the Garman Opera House Theatre sustained fire damage to its roof and the top floor, and it has water damage to the lower floors.
The Garman is without a roof, leaving the inside exposed to the elements, such as heavy rain that’s expected today.
Schreffler said a structural engineer will take a look at the Do De today to see if the building is stable or will have to be demolished.
On Howard Street, more than a dozen people who were left homeless by the fire are staying in a temporary shelter at the Trinity United Methodist Church on Howard Street. The shelter is organized by the local Red Cross chapter.
Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT