Everyone knows what to do when you hear a fire alarm in a high-rise building, right? You find a stairway and start making your way down. But what if it’s a long way down, you’re elderly — and there isn’t actually a fire?
That’s what Dick Van Orden has been pondering.
Dick is a 90-year-old retired admiral who lives with his wife at the Jefferson, a senior living facility on North Taylor Street in Arlington County. The condominium complex comprises two 21-story towers. Dick says the fire alarm goes off about once a month. Usually it’s a false alarm. Sometimes it’s a small cooking fire confined to a single apartment. Thankfully, there have been no major blazes. But in every case, the short-term result is the same: A loud recorded voice intones: “May I have your attention please. There has been a fire emergency reported in the building. Please leave the building by the nearest exit or exit stairway. Do not use the elevator.”
You or I might heed those instructions, but Dick and the other Jefferson residents aren’t supposed to. The reason: It’s not a good idea for elderly people to climb down multiple flights of stairs. Residents have been told to ignore the voice and to stay in their condos unless that’s where the fire is.
However, Dick said, “we have a number of people who are mentally distraught, and they don’t really understand. They know they’re supposed to stay. But when they hear it, many go ballistic.”
Agitated, they go to the stairwell and start walking down.
“We can usually catch them,” Dick said. But sometimes they can’t. Last year, a woman in her 90s started walking down from the 19th floor — without her walker. Somehow she made it to the second floor before stopping on a couch in a common area to rest. Another resident found her at 4 a.m. and helped her back up to her condo.
What Dick would like is for the enunciation message to be changed. Rather than say “exit by the nearest stairway,” he thinks it should say something like: “All residents must remain in their apartments, with outer door closed, until further notice. Do not use the elevator.”
That’s exactly what building management urges in notices attached to the insides of the apartment doors.
“It’s what we call ‘protect in place,’ ” said Doug Buttner, executive director of the Jefferson. “[The Arlington fire department] will not allow, and the insurance companies will not allow, the message on the fire enunciation system to be changed, for obvious liability issues.”
Ben Barksdale, the county’s chief fire marshal, has met with residents and explained the department’s position. “Let’s say something happens to one of those individuals that decided to stay in because we told them to,” he told me. “What liability do you think it’s going to be on the fire department? There’s no way we can do that.”
He said disabled residents can register with the fire department so that a dispatcher sends a firefighter directly to their apartment in an emergency.
Doug said they have tried to make the best of a potentially bad situation. To reduce the number of people affected, the fire message is broadcast only on the floor of the reported fire, the floor above and the floor below. If residents want to leave their apartments, he suggests they go to the nearest stairwell and wait there for help. The stairways have exhausts and are pressurized, he said, and smoke will be drawn away from them.
Sprinklers can usually knock down any fire in the concrete structure. “We say you’ll drown in this building before you’ll burn,” Doug said.
Dick agrees the building is safe but still wishes they would change the announcement, which can confuse the mentally fragile. “Just don’t say ‘evacuate the building,’ ” he said. “They can just leave that out.”
It does seem that contradictory messages are being delivered at the Jefferson. The management says stay in your apartment. The PA announcement says don’t stay in your apartment. Follow the management, and you might burn. Follow the PA announcement, and you might fall and break your hip. I understand the concerns over liability, but wouldn’t a lawyer zero in on that discrepancy? Or are the Jefferson and the fire department just trying to do the best they can?
That camera I wrote about Tuesday? Back in the hands of its owner, Klaus Preilipper. Klaus’s wife, Judy, recognized the photo I ran as their daughter and her boyfriend. The camera is broken, but the memory card, with 380 images on it, was just fine. The power of the press!