Report maps out plan for Bellefonte fire protection

More than a year and a half after the fire that ripped through a chunk of the Victorian heart of downtown Bellefonte, consuming the Garman Theatre and the Hotel Do De, a new report from the fire protection task force recommends a course of activities and long-term planning.

A similar report was issued in 2007 after the 2006 fire that destroyed the Bush House across from Talleyrand Park. Much of the new report is an echo of the old one — intentionally.

Assistant Borough Manager Don Holderman said the group started with that plan to determine what had been done, what still needed to be implemented and what else should be added to keep the charm and appeal of the historic community while ensuring its safety and continuity.

The new report identified eight areas to address, many outside simple issues of risk and danger. Evaluating and updating existing codes relative to fire was a recommendation seven years ago. The new report said adoption of the International Property Maintenance Code and launching a commercial fire inspection program were already completed over the past five years.

Councilwoman Gay Dunne hesitated to rank the new recommendations in terms of priority. When asked which is the most important, she replied “All of them.”

Education, however, is listed first. Both reports said teaching people about the special dangers of fire — and its unique challenges with historic buildings — was critical. It is also an area unfulfilled from the original recommendations.

Dunne thinks targeting that education toward specific groups, such as children, seniors, businesses and building owners is key.

Communication is also listed as vital, in more ways than one. The task force wants to ensure that not only do the relevant emergency response agencies and affected areas know all they need to know, but they also want to lobby for needs on a state, county and federal level. The report also details ongoing communication with residents, owners, real estate agents, developers and contractors.

On a practical, tangible front, the water system was singled out.

“Currently, it is 100 percent gravity fed and includes in some areas lines sized too small to effectively deliver adequate pressure and fire flow,” the report stated. “In addition. The installation of a sprinkler system in many downtown buildings currently requires a fire pump (additional installation) for adequate fire flow and pressure and comes at a great cost and significant financial hurdle for automatic sprinkler system installation.”

The solution, the task force said, is to recommend that the Bellefonte Water Authority continue to seek funding opportunities to upgrade the water system, particularly downtown.

Money and water raised their heads again with a separate note on sprinklers. The task force stopped short of encouraging a requirement for sprinkler systems in buildings, instead deciding to focus on the water infrastructure issue and acquiring funds to help “alleviate the financial burden on owners of historic downtown properties within a 10-year time frame.”

At the same time, they don’t want to have building owners putting plans on hold on the off chance that funding might become available.

“The task force will need to take into consideration those owners that proceeded to protect their building and its occupants and ensure that they received similar benefits such as future tax breaks, etc.,” the report suggested.

Other recommendations included increased manpower, not only in the fire department but in terms of grant-writing and other administration positions to implement the programs suggested; an updated fire protection evaluation and master plan done by the fire department, last completed in 1998; attention to historic preservation concerns; and an increased focus on funding for everything from the water system to fire apparatus.

One major change from the 2007 task force is that the new group will not disband. The plan is for subcommittees to be given each goal, work toward achieving it and report back to the task force, which will meet at least twice a year.

“We aren’t making this report and then disappearing,” Dunne said.

Holderman added, “The task force will act like a steering committee so this doesn’t just drop off.”