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Fire Safety Improvements Top Priority at Quarry Heights

Portland's 70-unit complex at 208 Main St. is badly in need for a new alarm system.

Efforts are moving ahead on Portland's application to obtain federal funds to improve safety for residents at Quarry Heights, the housing complex for elderly and disabled tenants. Town officials say the most important improvement called for will be a new state-of-the art fire alarm system.

First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield says the application will request $700,000, which is being considered by the State Department of Economic and Commmuity Development. The agency decides which cities and towns get federal Community Block Grant funding. 

Housing Director Jacqueline Frazee says "it's imperative" to get a new fire alarm system which will feature powerful strobe lights as well as high-volume sound. Bransfield and Frazee cite a letter from the town fire marshall that they believe will make a strong case.

Asked about the letter of inspection, Portland Fire Marshall Ray Sajdak says what's in place now is not up to standards and is "simply not a code compliant system." He added there is "no quick or easy fix."

Sajdak the main criterion is the decibel level for alarms in all apartments. It says a horn device inside each apartment has to reach 75 decibels as measured "at the pillow" in the bedroom. There should also be a strobe light to back up the horn, which is especially vital for tenants with hearing impairment. Deputy Fire Marshall Peter Gore said the new code points directly to protecting tenants under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He said any alarm should be heard by everyone downstairs and upstairs. 

There are additional problems cited in the fire marshall's report.  Sajdak says right now, smoke detectors inside the units activate a strobe outside the buildings. However, those have to be seen by residents or staff who then must call the fire department. Other sensors like heat sensors in kitchens and smoke detectors in hallways do trigger an automatic fire call because they go directly to the emergency dispatch unit in Middletown. Portland and Middletown have an interlocal agreement to share dispatching services. The agreement began in the mid 1990's.

Sajdak and Gore say the sensors in all the buildings should also be tied together to feed into a main panel in the recreation building.   Doing that would give responding firemen a quick idea of the scope of the problem and exactly where it is. That in turns provides the quickest response, which is vital, Sajdak says, because some residents are elderly and have severe mobility problems. 

Portland's Fire Marshall also says there should be pull down activation units at all exit doors in the complex. Right now, the "pull downs" are outside the buildings and they are located outside and at the middle of each building. So residents on units on either side would have to go outside, find the alarm boxes and pull the lever. 

Frazee says the fire marshall is working with an architect to draw up detailed plans that would be included in the application, but Sajdak notes any real work will have to wait for a grant. He said systems that would bring Quarry Heights into compliance come in a range of prices, with the highest including features that may be required in the future but aren't now. Any adequate system would cost in excess of $200,000.

The need for an alarm system was underlined, officials say, by a recent fire in the space between the ceiling and roof above unit 45. No one was injured but it forced occupants of two apartments to evacuate and seek temporary housing elsewhere while repairs were made. The fire was reported by occupants who smelled smoke, according to Fire Chief Robert Shea.  

Sajdak said it's been determined the cause of the fire was electrical, and was either a fan or the wire leading to the fan. It was above the ceiling of the bathroom of the unit. He said the fan was part of the original equipment dating back to the 1970's.

Frazee says "safety will guide our priorities" in everything we do with any money they receive. She pointed to a thorough report delivered late last year by Captial Studio Architects, which spotlighted other safety needs at Quarry Heights.

They found cracked and uneven sidewalks that need repair. The report also mentions the need for modern grab rails located in bathrooms and all showers. 

Also citied were kitchen cabinets in older buildings that were part of the original fixtures. The report urges that they should be replaced and positioned so that they will be easier for older and disabled tenants to reach. Frazee says they've been fixed repeatedly but are falling apart in some cases.

Frazee says there are 70 residents at Quarry Heights, 40 are disabled and 30 are elderly. The elderly residents are on fixed low incomes that can't exceed $40,000 per year. Disabled residents must qualify for aid and can be any age. Many of the residents get around with battery operated mobile chairs. Others have walkers with wheels. 

Another initiative being pursued in the application is money to make two more units equipped for severly disabled residents. Right now there are two ground floor units set up for people with extensive disabilities. Frazee says two other ground floor units can be converted to help.

The grant application from Portland will be reviewed by the Connecticut's DECD. Department Specialist Veronica Hunter says they've received 40 applications from cities and towns before this year's deadline. She said in every case, the staff examines the proposals and assigns a ranking. They have four people working full time on block grants and frequently experts from other offices in the department are called in to help do analysis. Officials also say there are always more applications than money available.  

She says each year Connecticut is allocated an overall sum from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban development. This year they received $12.3 million for the entire state. It was lower than in past years because the Congress reduced funding for block grants by 16 percent.  

Hunter says it averages three months to make any decision, which means Portland can expect to get a decision by September at the earliest. 

Bransfield acknowledged competition will be tough for any award. She believes it's possible the town and housing authority will get less than the $700,000 they asked for. But she and Frazee hope there will be enough at least for the badly needed fire alarm replacement. 

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