Report: Schenectady codes department ignored 104 Jay St. warnings

Report: Fire Department gave up on filing reports with city codes department
Schenectady firefighters battle a fire at 104 Jay St. after flames broke out shorty after 2 a.m. on Friday March 6, 2015.
Schenectady firefighters battle a fire at 104 Jay St. after flames broke out shorty after 2 a.m. on Friday March 6, 2015.

SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady City Fire Department filed a total of 14 reports with the city Codes Department regarding 104 Jay St. in the two years that preceded a fatal fire there — reports that apparently were ignored, according to a report released Monday.

The Fire Department’s reports focused on issues central to the fire’s spread and residents’ response to the March 6, 2015 blaze.

The report, compiled by a Schenectady County grand jury, includes eight separate recommendations to improve the city Codes Department and its response to critical building issues. It also places blame squarely on the city.

“It is the collective view of the grand jury that the numerous failures of the Schenectady Bureau of Code Enforcement office … directly contributed to the deaths and injuries which occurred at 104 Jay St. in Schenectady on March 6, 2015,” the report concludes.

The violations cited by the Fire Department and forwarded to codes officials noted the lack of fire doors in stairwells, inoperable smoke alarms and concerns about the building’s fire alarm box and residents’ efforts to silence it, the grand jury report states.

One report, sent by a fire lieutenant on March 1, 2014 — a full year before the fire that killed four residents — stated: “Building poses numerous hazards that can/will be fatal to its occupants and EMS.”

Codes Department employees acknowledged in testimony before the grand jury that they received the Fire Department reports, but the grand jury found no system in place to log, track or ensure issues had been addressed, the report states.

Instead, the concerns were treated as advisory, and evidence showed no reported action was taken in response to the 14 violations issued by the Fire Department at 104 Jay St.

The grand jury report is the result of work completed from late 2016 to May 2017 and resulted in indictments against building manager Jason Sacks and city inspector Kenneth Tyree.

Sacks is to be sentenced Friday. He pleaded guilty in January to criminally negligent homicide related to the four deaths and is to be sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison. Tyree is to be sentenced in May on a conviction related to his job application. Tyree was acquitted on charges related to the deaths.

The fire claimed the lives of residents Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33. Dozens of others were injured, and the building and an adjacent structure were destroyed.

Testimony at Tyree’s trial highlighted the lack of fire doors and the inoperable state of the alarm system. Without fire doors, the blaze spread quickly to other floors. The fire alarm system, rendered inoperable by residents who learned to silence it, left residents with no warning about the fast-spreading fire.

The focus of the new grand jury report, released because the criminal cases have concluded, is to ensure changes in the city Building and Codes Departments. It follows criticism directed at the department in a recent audit by the state Comptroller’s Office.

The grand jury called for a new policy manual that includes a host of updates, including defining supervisory responsibilities, use of GPS monitors for inspectors, performance standards and reviews.

The grand jury also recommended immediate inspections of all multiple-unit residences in the city, requiring secure key boxes for city access to those buildings and requiring the Fire Department to send its reports to both the Codes Department and the city Corporation Counsel’s Office.

The grand jury recommended the city fill a long-vacant fire inspector position, as well, and made recommendations to address Codes Department employees’ “endemic lack of knowledge” concerning their duties, responsibilities and life safety issues.

District Attorney Robert Carney noted in a press release Monday that the report is dated in May, and that some of the recommendations — immediate inspections and background checks for code enforcement officers — have been, or are being, implemented.

“But this investigation has revealed that more needs to be done,” Carney said in a prepared statement accompanying the report. “I am hopeful that the grand jury’s hard work in this matter will result in much-needed improvement in the operation of the bureau of code enforcement and that the expertise of the Schenectady Fire Department is regarded with the gravity it requires.”

Mayor Gary McCarthy on Monday cited changes being made in the buildings department with regard to short-term goals and long-term objectives. Changes already made have “significantly improved” department effectiveness, he said. 

The public safety commissioner now also oversees the Buildings Department, and Assistant Police Chief Jack Falvo now has additional duties as chief of the Buildings Department.

McCarthy said the city is taking the report seriously.

“We’re going to take it and study it and look to build on some of the changes we have already made,” he said.

McCarthy said he first learned Fire Department notifications were ignored after an investigation of the Jay Street fire had begun.

Software systems are being put into place to ensure such reports are followed up on, McCarthy said. 

McCarthy also said Monday that the fire inspector position cited in the report hadn’t been filled in decades. He believes those duties could be assigned to another city official.

No lawsuits were filed against the city related to the blaze, and the standard deadline for such lawsuits has long passed. However, new information could reopen the matter, officials have said.

City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said Monday that the issue of liability in such cases is complicated, but he believes the information released Monday doesn’t support legal action.

Provided the report Monday, local attorney Paul DeLorenzo called the details “mind blowing.” DeLorenzo’s firm DeLorenzo, Grasso & Dalmata represents a Jay Street fire survivor and the family of Suarez.

But does it change the liability calculation?

“Not necessarily, no,” DeLorenzo said, adding that he would investigate to see if something can be pursued.

“It’s a tough one; it really is,” DeLorenzo said. “They’re very well insulated from a lawsuit in this situation. But we owe it to the families to look and see if there’s anything we can do.”

The report was brought up during Monday night’s City Council Committee meeting by Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo.

Perazzo called the report “very upsetting”  and “a concern.” She did praise the city for putting in Michael Eidens as the city’s public safety commissioner and for moving Falvo over to the Buildings Department. But she still wanted the council to make sure the city comes into full compliance with local and state building and code regulations.

She wants to discuss the recommendations from the grand jury report and the state Comptroller’s Office at the council’s next committee meeting in two weeks.

“I just think as the council, doing our due diligence, needs to look at these things now and not wait,” Perazzo said.

Following the meeting, council President Ed Kosiur said he is willing to put the issue on the agenda for the next round of committee meetings for at least some initial discussions. But he said he also wanted to speak with McCarthy in seeing where the city is at with implementing changes to the Code and Building departments.

When asked about whether the city could be sued for the deaths that occurred during the fire, Kosiur said he hadn’t read the full report, but pointed to the last page of the grand jury’s report that pointed the finger at the city.

“You don’t have to be an attorney to interpret that,” Kosiur said, but added he was unsure whether the city could be sued.

Kosiur did praise for the changes already made by McCarthy, and said he never wants to see something like the fire on Jay Street ever happen anywhere in the city again.

“I feel sorry for the victims,” Kosiur said. “But I don’t need anymore victims, either.”

The Fire Department would likely have filed more than 14 code violation reports regarding 104 Jay St. if it weren’t for the Code Department’s lack of action on previous reports, according to the grand jury report.

“Firefighters also testified that they often did not file code violation reports for 104 Jay St. because they had already been filed so many times before without any remedial action being taken,” the grand jury report states.

The grand jury also highlighted the city’s response to persistent fire alarms at 104 Jay St. and to notification from an alarm company that the building’s alarm monitoring service had been ended.

After dozens of false alarms there in the years leading up to the fire — three or four a month by one estimate — the city did nothing to enforce a code that allowed fees of up to $125 per incident to be assessed against building owners for persistent false alarms.

In response to the repeated false alarms, building employees showed residents how to silence and reset the alarms, the grand jury report states. The alarm box panel was left unlocked; the lock was even damaged to prevent it from locking.

Beginning in November 2014, just after the monitoring service ended,  the number of Fire Department calls at the building dramatically decreased, according to the grand jury report. The final Fire Department visit, a response to a 911 call, was on Jan. 30, 2015. The system then gradually became inoperable floor by floor, as residents silenced alarms.

No alarm sounded during the fire.

“The multiplicity of these false alarms contributed to tenant indifference to danger and directly led to tenants accessing the fire alarm panel box and silencing the alarm without knowledge of how to reset the system,” the district attorney’s press release states.

The grand jury even found that inspectors were allowed to accept gifts from interested parties below $75, and workers believed it proper to conduct inspections of properties owned by friends, relatives or those well known to them.

The grand jury’s recommendations:

  1. Adopt the policy manual for the code enforcement office previously created and add policies relating to supervision, code violation reports, inspections and reporting, and conflicts of interest.
  2. Perform inspections of life-safety systems in all multiple-unit residences in the city of Schenectady.
  3. Adopt a policy requiring secure, operable key boxes be installed and maintained on all multiple-unit residences.
  4. Increase the administrative fees for persistent false alarms and mandate reporting to the corporation counsel of all persistent false alarms by address.
  5. Adopt an ordinance mandating that the city assessor notify the code enforcement office of the change in ownership of any multiple residence R-2 group building in the city of Schenectady.
  6. Perform background checks on all prospective employees of the building department.
  7. Adopt an ordinance requiring third-party alarm monitoring companies to notify the codes department and fire inspector when services are canceled or terminated.
  8. Fill the vacant position of fire inspector.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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