Friday, February 8, 2013

THE HAPPY LAND SOCIAL CLUB FIRE


This story is taken from the bi-monthly magazine NFPA Journal, January/February Edition-2013, and was written by staff writer Kathleen Robinson who is a regular contributer to the column 'Looking Back'.



"I'LL BE BACK"

Those words, spoken like a line out of the movie Terminator, was the threat made good by a disgruntled customer who sparked one the most deadliest intentionally set nightclub blazes in U.S history.  Kathleen Robinson tells the story like this:

In the wee hours hours of March 25, 1990, the club, located in the East Tremont section of the Bronx in New York City, was packed with young Honduran immigrants celebrating Carnival.  Gonzalez, a 36-year-old unemployed Cuban refugee, was ejected from the club after a fight with his former girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano.  Gonzalez found a plastic container and filled it with $1 worth of gasoline at a nearby gas station.  He returned to the club, poured the gas on the floor of the club's only open entrance, threw in some lit matches, and left.  He later returned and watched as firefighters battled the ensuing blaze, according to The New York Times. 

The Times reported that the club had been shut down by inspectors because it was a "firetrap," in the blunt assessment of Charles Smith, Jr., the city's buildings commissioner.  Officials said the club had no sprinklers, fire exits, emergency lights, or exit signs, and that it reopened illegally.  After entering the front door, patrons went down a narrow hallway past a ticket window and coat check, then into a small room with a dance floor and a bar.  Stairs at the back of the first floor led to another dance floor and a bar on the floor above, where most of the patrons had congregated.

After Gonzalez dropped his matches, flames spread quickly from the entrance through the first floor and up the stairs.  The club filled with smoke, asphyxiating victims "so rapidly that they were found with drinks in their hands," according to The Times.  A firefighter who responded to the blaze was quoted as saying that some of the victims "looked like they were sleeping."  Others, he said, looked like they were in shock.  "There were some people holding hands.  There were some people who looked like they were trying to commiserate and hug each other."

Many fell where they were, piling up on the dance floor, while others tried to reach the exit.  Firefighters found 68 bodies upstairs and 19 on the stairs or ground floor.  Only five people managed to escape.  One of them was Lydia Feliciano.

On November 15, 1990, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson ruled that the building's three landlords were not criminally responsible for the fire, noting that criminal liability probably rested with Elias Colon, the owner and operator of the club, who died in the fire.  Two months later, however, New York City Mayor David Dinkins filed misdemeanor charges against the other two landlords.  Both eventually pleaded guilty "to failing to install a proper sprinkler system and to illegally converting the premises into a two-story social club," even though they "contended that they were not guilty because they were unaware the building had been converted," according to The New York Times.

Gonzalez was arrested, charged, and convicted on 87 counts of murder, 87 counts of arson, and assault in August 1991.  He was sentenced to 25 years to life on each count, and is eligible for parole in 2015. 

                                                                   -Kathleen Robinson

Thursday, February 7, 2013

UPDATE TO PART 1 OF "PLAYING WITH FIRE?"

"CLAYTON: City purchases 'linchpin piece' of downtown"

Pioneer Inn Property
That was the headline printed in the San Jose Mercury News as reported by David DeBolt, staff writer for the Contra Costa Times just yesterday, Thursday, February 4, 2013.  An interesting bit of news after reading part one wouldn't you agree?

The article by Mr. DeBolt confirmed that the Clayton City Council, by a vote of 5-0, agreed to purchase the old Pioneer Inn property for $1 million from the Clayton Community Church.  Needless to say, I was flabbergasted to read that our city leaders would agree to a $1 million expenditure of taxpayer funds in the wake of our only fire station being shutdown 75% of the time.  Now I know what Mayor Pierce meant in reference to the partial closing of Station No.11 when she told me by phone, "we don't have any money."

After severe opposition by a coalition of "Claytonians" to a new 42,000 square foot church facility being constructed for the community church in the heart of downtown Clayton, the owners of the property entered into closed door negotiations with city leaders to purchase the property and build their church elsewhere in town.
Clayton Community Church

Even though the vote was 5-0 in favor of the purchase, at least one city staff member expressed some concern about the purchase, however, not for the reasons I wanted to hear.  Instead, Mary Pelletier, the city's finance manager, was somewhat stressed by the fact that in order to pay for the purchase, the city would be forced into using money from its capitol improvement fund.  This expenditure would as she put it, "severely limit" the funding for other capitol improvement projects, and that so far is the only concern being reported in the local news, nothing in regards to the partial closing of Station No.11 in the mix of all this.




So, was the Mayor mistaken when she told me the city didn't have the funds to mitigate the crisis we are currently experiencing in adequate fire protection?  Or is it that her "visions" for the city just do not include basic services such as fire protection and prompt medical care for its residents?

With the purchase of this property, "Mayor Julie Pierce envisions a project that will bring ground-floor retail with the possibility of housing units and offices upstairs.", to quote Mr. Debolt.  Well, I would submit that the Mayor take another walk around town, because what I observed after a leisurely stroll through town does not cry out for more retail space.  Dotted throughout our small and quaint downtown, I counted no less than a half-dozen "For Lease" signs in the windows of vacant retail space, a situation that has existed since I moved here in 2009. 

Obviously the victim of the "great recession", downtown Clayton still is struggling.  Only two new business have popped up in the last year that I'm aware of, a Subway sandwich shop at the end of town that according to employees when asked, is barely scraping by, and a real estate office down the street.  It is the same story with the Village Market just a block away.  The owners of the business, who also own Johnny's Deli, have tried to sell for years with no luck.

Perhaps the Mayor and City Council receive their optimism based on the fact that two medium sized shopping centers located at the entrance to our town have seen a tremendous turn around in the number of businesses moving in, including Orchard Supply, Fresh and Easy, and Panda Express in the last year and a half.  So why not the same enthusiasm to rent retail space in our city?  I'm not a real estate expert so I don't have and answer to that question.  However,  I do have one last question of the Mayor and City Council.  If the redevelopment of the old Pioneer Property is worth the risk, then why did the city have to buy the property instead of real estate developers?  Why risk a million dollars of the taxpayers money, why not let investors risk their own cash? 

Visions of a bustling downtown, complete with a hotel and tasteful shops in the shadows of the crisis we are in, is inexplicable to me.  Why a crisis you say?  After-all, nothing has happen since the partial closure of Station No.11 has it?  No, and I pray each day that nothing tragic befalls our small community of just over 10,000 residents.  However, bad things do happen everyday, and just to prove my point, here are some recent incidents that have just crossed by desk in the last few weeks since our fire station has been forced to cut service by 75%:





Holiday Display Starts Fatal Fire
MASSACHUSETTS- An 84-old woman died of exposure to heat and smoke when a holiday display on the deck of her third-floor apartment caught fire.  The fire department received the initial call from an alarm company at 11:18 p.m. and responded as other calls began to come in.  The first-in engine company arrived nine minutes later and reported heavy fire coming from the deck of a third-floor apartment.  Advised by a police officer on scene that someone was trapped inside, firefighters attempted to gain entry but were unable to save the woman.  The fire eventually went to four alarms, with five more residents sustaining injuries including smoke inhalation and exhaustion. 
This fire occurred late in the evening hours, when most fatal fires occur.  At the current level of service, our station is only open from the hours of 2 p.m. to 8 p.m in the evening, hardly the peak hours for a serious fire to occur.  Further complicating matters is the response time that I underlined for emphasis.  Currently the nearest engine company available for such a fire as this is 10 miles away, 75% of the time.

Firefighter Hears Gasps, Rescues Boy From Apartment Fire (1/31/12)
Kansas City, Missouri- An alert firefighter, hearing a 3-year old boy gasping for air, pulls the child from a burning two-story apartment building Thursday afternoon.  Firefighters had to deploy three fire hoses and begin an immediate search of the residence in order to successfully save the lad.  The youngster received treatment from a local hospital and then was released to his mother who suffered minor injuries.  In order to successfully pull off a rescue like this takes resources, two fire fighters for each fire hose and a minimum of two firefighters for the rescue.  At the current level of service we receive from COCO Fire, do you think the outcome would have been different in our city?

18 Kids Hospitalized After Bus Engine Fire (02/01/13)
Houston, Texas- 18 students from a Texas elementary school as a precaution were hospitalized after the school bus they were riding in experienced a fire in the engine compartment.  All of the students were released from the hospital after the observation period was complete.  Fortunately this incident turned out to be relatively minor, but would still be classified as a "Multi-Causality Incident" or MCI.  At present staffing levels, could our fire department even handle an incident such as this?

NJ Firefighters Injured At Fatal House Fire  (01/28/13)
East Rutherford, New Jersey- One elderly resident was killed and two New Jersey firefighters were injured after investigators described the incident as, "a fast moving fire that tore through a 2 1/2 story, wood-frame dwelling."  Hording conditions inside the home delayed firefighters in gaining access to the interior.  Once inside, again hording conditions impeded firefighters from reaching the victim in time.  These types of fires are becoming more common these days and typically require huge amounts of manpower to mitigate.  I have serious doubts that COCO Fire can meet the challenges of an incident like this, what do you think?

DISCLAIMER

Again, I remind my readers that it is not my intention to belittle or degrade the Mayor or City Council, including their staff.  I sincerely believe however, that decisions are being made, such as the one above, that just do not seem to make for good common sense, and therefore, must be the feeling of others in the city.

I also believe that basic needs such as public safety must be met above all others, and that our city leaders should conduct themselves with that in mind.  Regardless of the benefits in the future, fire protection is something that we need now, today, this hour, this minute and not a second less. 




























Saturday, February 2, 2013

PLAYING WITH FIRE? Part 1 of 2



Station No.11


THE CLOSURES
 
California fire departments, like many in the nation, are either on the brink of bankruptcy or are facing such difficult financial hardships, that the closure of fire stations and the laying-off of firefighters is the only certainty facing these departments and districts throughout the State.  Take Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (also known as COCO Fire) for example, a "special" district serving various cities and unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County.  In a move to save money, the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, January 15, 2012, ordered Chief Louden of COCO Fire to shut down three fire stations serving the cities of Lafayette, Martinez, Walnut Creek, and a partial shutdown of Station 11 in Clayton, the city's only fire station. Left in the wake are thousands of residents without adequate fire protection or timely emergency medical services and local politicians with shrugged shoulders and blank stares on their faces with no idea of what to do about it.



DOING THE RIGHT THING?

THE CITY COUNCIL MEETING


Concerned over the partial closure of my local fire station No. 11, the only station serving the residents of Clayton within a ten mile radius, I decided to attend the next city council meeting to see what plan the Mayor and City Council had come up with to deal with this disturbing situation.  Expecting to see a packed house, I was shocked to find that just five citizens showed up to protest the closing.  Interestingly, two of the gentlemen in the audience, in addition to myself, were retired firefighters; the other two I had never met. 

Even more stupefying to me was the realization that neither the Mayor, City Manager, nor the City Council had a clue as to how to proceed other than to setup some last minute Ad Hoc committee to determine the city's options.  Everyone of these folks knew at least a year in advance that these closures were an option on the table, set there by the Board of Supervisors, yet nothing was done to address the issue before the partial closing of No.11 actually occurred.

The hits kept coming when city manager, Gary Napper, declared Station No. 11 still an active station at the meeting.  Perplexing when you realize that fire personnel only man the station Monday through Saturday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.  This leaves the residents of Clayton without adequate fire protection from 8 p.m. Saturday evening until 2 p.m. Monday afternoon. 

To myself and other professionals in the fire protection industry, this is totally unacceptable.  In my opinion, not speaking for anyone else professionally, although I know most of my colleagues would agree, these cut-backs are reckless and irresponsible on the part of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, the Contra Costa Fire Protection District, and Clayton City Hall.

THE GROVE

DISCLAIMER

Before I continue any further, I must make several disclaimers. One, it is not my intention in writing this article to cast blame entirely upon Mayor Pierce, City Manager Gary Napper, or the rest of the City Council and Staff. As you are about to discover, the fact is there are many reasons and plenty of folks to blame as to why Station 11 has been left sitting without staffing 75 percent of the time.  I believe these dedicated citizens do an admirable and difficult job a majority of the time, after-all, one only has to take a few seconds drive through our downtown to see that Clayton is a very beautiful and special place to live.

Second, I don't pretend to be an expert on politics, union negotiations, tax matters, or running a fire department or a city.  I don't possess a B.S., B.A., or PhD., and as a matter of fact, I have never even done my own tax return.  Further, I have never run for political office, nor is it my intention to do so.  But what I do bring to the discussion is over 40 years of experience in emergency services, including 26 years as both as a firefighter and captain with San Jose Fire Department, a volunteer firefighter, dispatcher, police officer, and now a business owner dedicated to fire protection. 

That being said, I do believe our local politicians are certainly partially culpable for leaving our city without adequate fire protection and prompt medical services and I plan to hold their feet to the fire until it is resolved.  Now, if I can get the rest of the citizens involved before a major catastrophe occurs in our quite little bedroom community, then my objective will have been met and hopefully make Clayton a safe place to live again. 


THE PHONE CALL TO THE MAYOR

Mayor Julie Pierce
Wednesday, following the city council meeting the night before, I called Clayton's Mayor, Julie Pierce, in hopes of offering my services to assist in coming up with solutions to the partial closure of Station No.11.  Perhaps catching her off guard, (I originally called City Hall and instead of placing me in her voicemail, they patched me directly to her cell phone), I was met immediately with a very negative and defensive demeanor from the Mayor.

However, bad days do happen and I'm sure the Mayor has lost plenty of sleep over this issue, so even though I took exception for being treated as an adversary rather than a concerned citizen, the Mayor and City Council still deserve respect and a little slack over a very difficult situation.  Besides, as with most conversations, it wasn't so much the tone of what was said, but the content that really mattered and the Mayor had some very interesting things to reveal.

After introducing myself and giving a little a little of my background to the Mayor, I inquired as to what her future plans were for addressing the partial closure of our fire station.  For the next five minutes, Mayor Pierce went into a song and dance about the fact that there was just no money in the city coffers to effectively deal with the situation.  After a slight scolding for suggesting severance from COCO Fire, a suggestion by the way I never made or even brought up, she revealed that separation from the financially beleaguered fire protection district was not an option in her mind, and that city leaders had absolutely no control over what decisions the County Board of Supervisors or the fire chief made concerning staffing of fire stations.

Mayor Pierce then suggested that I take my concerns to the County Board of Supervisors meeting since it was they, and they alone, that were responsible for the reduced fire protection services to the city.  Of course I immediately pointed out that I didn't think myself and two other retired firefighters would have much influence, referring to the lack of participation and concern on the part of "Claytonians", as I found out they have been so affectionately referred to in the past. 

Lastly, I inquired of the Mayor as to when we as taxpayers could expect a refund from COCO Fire in lieu of the reduced services, to which the answer I received was, "don't expect any kind of refund now or in the future." 

THE MAYOR WASN'T KIDDING

Turns out the Mayor wasn't just blowing smoke up my chimney, there really isn't much her or the city council can do about fire protection in our city.  Even more shocking was to find that State law absolves them from even providing fire protection, including the ability to be sued for not doing so.

The Fire Protection District Law of 1987 

First, fire protection districts exist with the full backing of the California State Legislature.  One only has to go as far as the first section of a little known law as the "Fire Protection District Law of 1987",  or also sometimes referred to as the "Bergeson Fire District Law" to get the intent of law makers in the State: Section 13801 states: "The Legislature finds and declares that the local provisions of fire protection services, rescue services, ambulance services, and other services relating to the protection of lives and property is critical to the public peace, health, and safety of the State."

In order for the State to achieve this goal, certain powers and responsibilities were granted to fire protection districts and these are cited further in Section 13801:  "Among the ways local communities have provided for those services has been the creation of fire protection districts.  Local control over the type, levels, and availability of these services is a long standing tradition in California which the Legislature intends to retain.  Recognizing that the State's communities have diverse needs and resources, it is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this part to provides broad statutory authority for local officials.  The Legislature encourages local communities and their officials to adopt the powers and procedures in this part to meet their own circumstances and responsibilities."

As you can see from the parts I underlined for emphasis, the State Legislature has given fire protection districts like COCO Fire very broad and generalized powers, including the ever powerful ability to tax its customers, basically leaving cities like Clayton without much, if anything at all, to say about the services they receive, even though residents pay for those services, in the case of Clayton, 3.2 million dollars to be exact.

California Government Code Section 850

If something tragic should happen, and for those of you that regularly read my blog know catastrophic events happen everyday, don't plan on suing Clayton City Hall after the fact.  Section 850 of the California Government Code all but releases any liability of city officials governing a "general law city" from being sued for failure to provide fire protection by stating: "Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish a fire department or otherwise to provide fire protection services." 

Further protection is granted by the law in Section 850.2 which states: "Neither a public entity that has undertaken to provide fire protection service, nor an employee of such a public entity, is liable for any injury resulting from the failure to provide or maintain sufficient personnel, equipment, or other other fire protection facilities."

So it would seem to me, in the usual style of our politicians and law makers here in California, that one law embraces the peace, health, and safety of the public, but has made sure no one is liable for failure to provide such assurances.

Not So Fast!

It turns out that even though the Legislature made sure you couldn't sue Mayor Pierce for failure to provide adequate fire protection services, the same is not true for the overseers of COCO Fire.  Section 13861 of the Fire Protection District Law of 1987 states in part: "A district shall have and may exercise all rights and powers, expressed or implied, necessary to carry out the purposes and intent of this part, including, but not limited to, the following powers:
(a) "To sue and be sued."

STAYED TUNED!

In part two, I will discuss what I believe are the real reasons for the financial mess our fire departments are experiencing all over the State and shed some light on what I believe can be done about it.

As always, stay fire safe and don't forget to support our first responders and our troops.