No one at Thursday’s joint Johnson City Board of Education/City Commission Facilities Committee meeting questioned the need to ensure fire safety at 37-year-old Freedom Hall.
But how to go about it — that question led to more than an hourlong discussion in which both Fire Chief Mark Scott and Science Hill High School Principal Melanie Riden-Bacon made clear they did not want to be in the “fire watch business.”
It’s not that they are unconcerned; they are. Their statements do reflect part of a long-standing issue that is now being addressed one step at a time.
Scott, who said the state’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service recently inspected the structure, made recommendations to the committee and other city and school officials which, when boiled down, were reduced to two basic choices: retrofit the building with a sprinkler system, replace wiring and update alarms and implement other state-mandated fire protection procedures, or use city firefighters, volunteer firefighters or a third-party contractor to monitor the building during events.
Scott said his preference is to install a sprinkler system and the overall goal is to move the building into compliance with current code.
“The meeting really was meant to update everybody and to seek cooperation and assistance as we move forward,” he said. “I think we’re all here for a common purpose. The best alternative is to put a new sprinkler system in there. The building is solid, and it can be used for many more years. We’re also looking at wiring a system throughout the building that can be monitored from a single location.”
At this point, there is no cost estimate for installing a sprinkler system, but that’s one of the next steps. Officials also will look at the cost of alternatives, which includes the continued use of fire watches that could be formed from a combination of sources. There also will be further review about whether one person should be responsible for all safety, security and maintenance at the building.
“There are contractors out there that can provide a fire watch at a much better price than I can give you,” Scott told Board of Education members, city commissioners, city staff and school administrators.
Scott explained later that off-duty firefighters are notified to “work” an event much like police officers are scheduled to be on hand at the Blue Plum Festival, or other downtown events. He said it’s hard to calculate what the charges will be for any particular event, because it is dependent on the length of the event, the number of firefighters used and the varying rates of pay for those called upon to do a fire watch.
Commissioner Clayton Stout asked if there was a cost estimate for a new sprinkler system to compare with the cost of using firefighters. No numbers were at the ready.
“We’ve got everybody here, but I feel like we’ve been doing nothing but chasing our tails here for 45 minutes,” Stout said with an obvious tone of frustration.
Freedom Hall, which was opened in 1974, does have alarms throughout, but it has no sprinklers in any portion of the structure. Sprinklers were not required when Freedom Hall was built.
Scott said the building must have a fire watch when there are at least 300 people at an event. Firefighters or certified individuals are employed to make sure exits are clear and there are no existing hazards. Things get a little tricky, though, because the arena is booked and overseen by the city. Meanwhile, Johnson City schools use the arena, pool and various parts of the building and the Parks and Recreation Department also is involved.
But when it comes to fire codes, the entire building is considered, not just the 5,600-seat arena.
Another twist is that no one sitting at the table Thursday represented the person or persons that end up paying for firefighters’ overtime.
“Promoters pay for that,” said Lisa Chamness, Freedom Hall director. “A lot of people don’t realize that. It’s hard on business.”
She said city firefighters are used any time there is a public event at the arena.
“We try to get with (Johnson City Fire Marshal) Lori Ratliff well ahead of an event. Chamness will let Ratliff know how many people are expected and Ratliff then determines the number of firefighters needed.
“None of us want to be in the fire watch business, but I do think it’s important that we all are involved in training to some degree — both city and school personnel,” Chamness said. “This discussion really was meant to inform everyone about the MTAS recommendations.”
The state fire marshal was due in Johnson City Thursday afternoon to speak with Scott and clarify various codes, allowances for classrooms, security systems and electronic master key systems.