Susan Meehan and I were chatting the other day when she mentioned a fire alarm that had been activated "as a prank" at the Municipal Building.
"Who in the world would consider a false alarm a prank?" asked.
"Oh, you'd be surprised," she said. "Some people find a fire alarm almost irresistible. In some buildings, occupants become so accustomed to false alarms they no longer pay attention to the bells."
"Oh, boy," I said. "Big joke, ha ha ha, except that some day a lot of people may die."
The next day I rang up Fire Marshal Carmel S. Del Balzo and asked him whether the Fire Department is concerned about people whose perverted sense of humor makes them enjoy false alarms. He sighed.
"Yes," he said, "especially when the offenses become so numerous that the building management disconnects the alarm system. Then, when a real fire breaks out, there is a delay in notifying us because people are busy trying to make the interior alarm work. When they fail to activate it, there is no warning to the people in the building. A false alarm of fire isn't funny, it's vicious. It puts lives into jeopardy."
(Let me interpolate a warning here: Most interior alarm system are not connected to the Fire Department. The ringing of an interior alarm system does not necessarily mean that the Fire Department has been notified and is responding.)
I said, "Marshal, we've had fires in this area in which people were trapped and died because exit doors were locked or because of some other violation of the fire code. Do you think your people are doing an effective job of inspecting public buildings and making sure the law is obeyed?
"We've been cut five inspectors because of the District's budget problems," he said. "We have 23,000 buildings to inspect, and it's obvious we can't inspect them as thoroughly or as frequently as we could if we had more personnel. We just have to do our best to inspect, enforce the fire code, make suggestions, preach fire safety, and cooperate with business firms that are safety-conscious and want to help in setting up fire drill procedures.
"We take the resources that are given to us and stretch them as far as we can. That's all any agency of government can do. Our first priority goes to schools, hospitals and 'places of public assembly,' a term that includes places of entertainment. The special problem in places of entertainment is that they sometimes lock their fire doors to prevent people from sneaking in free. The schools, hospitals and entertainment places are the areas of greatest danger, and therefore the areas of greatest concern to us. But when something goes wrong in any of the other 23,000 buildings, the question is always asked, 'How come you let them violate the law and didn't do anything about it?' There's only one course to follow, and that is to work as hard as we can to get compliance with the law."
One more point: The law of averages says that the more emergency runs you make the more accidents there will be and the more people will be hurt. If half of the city's fire alarms are false, half of the firemen and civilians involved in resulting accidents will have been needlessly injured. One of the victims could be you or me, or somebody we love.
Del Balzo will retire at the end of this month. He has spent 30 years trying to protect us -- not only from accidents but from ourselves and our ho ho ho practical jokers. I hope the next fire marshal will be able to figure out a way to persuade people that false alarms are not funny, they're tragic. POSTSCRIPT
No doubt you've read and heard about the Brinley Inn in Bradley Beach, N.J. It caught fire just before midnight Saturday.
By Sunday morning, 23 of the Brinley Inn's 39 elderly tenants were dead. By Wednesday, fire investigators were able to state that no arson was involved. The fire was "an accident, and was believed to have started in electrical wiring."
Why? Electrical wiring doesn't start fires unless there is something amiss but the investigators shed no light on what went wrong.
Instead, we're told that a law will be proposed to require rooming houses and boarding homes to be equipped with sprinkler systems and fire doors.
In other words, now that the horse is gone, they think it might be a good idea to lock the barn door.
If you're wondering why New Jersey law doesn't already require such precautions, I refer you to the many clumns I have done about the need for better youth camp safety laws and laws dealing with convalescent homes.
The problem is simple enough: Every industry resists real regulation.
Industries love regulations that create monopolies and keep their profits high. But everything else the government does is decried as "interference."