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Schenectady says codes communication issues fixed

Schenectady says codes communication issues fixed

Action comes after scathing grand jury report
Schenectady says codes communication issues fixed
Schenectady firefighters battle a 2-alarm fire at 104 Jay St. on March 6, 2015.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY — Sometime in early October 2014, the city Building and Codes Department received a request for details about what violations, if any, were on file about 104 Jay St.

The request came as the building was being sold. A code enforcement supervisor checked the department's computers and a folder containing paperwork about the building and wrote out a quick memo about his findings.

"To whom it may concern," opens the letter, which was dated Oct. 14, 2014. "There are no existing violations on this property to date."

The memo and the story behind it were discussed in testimony during the February trial of former city building inspector Kenneth Tyree, who was accused of negligence for his role in the massive March 6, 2015, fire at 104 Jay St. that claimed the lives of four people.

The memo illustrated what was perhaps the most glaring sign of a dysfunctional Codes Department, as detailed in a grand jury report released this past week.

At the time the memo was written, the Building Department should have known about massive problems in the building, which housed 20 apartments, according to information contained in the grand jury report.

In the 16 months prior to the letter being prepared and sent, the Fire Department sent the Codes Department 13 separate memos about dangerous problems at 104 Jay St., which was located just across from City Hall. The earliest report on record from the Fire Department was sent in September 2012.

The Fire Department's final message to the Codes Department about 104 Jay St. concerned a fire call dated just eight days before the "no existing violations" codes memo was written.

In one sentence, the author of the last Fire Department report listed eight separate issues spotted during the Oct. 6, 2014, visit to the structure, including the fire alarm box being left wide open and residents silencing that day's alarm prior to firefighters' arrival. The next sentence listed three more violations.

"This address is a common problem for us ... In general, this building is in very poor condition from basement to roof," stated the report.

The grand jury determined codes employees felt the Fire Department reports were merely advisory. Though they still assigned them to inspectors, they kept no logs of them, never followed up and supervisors didn't know if inspections were even performed, the grand jury report states.

"The Grand Jury's investigation showed that there was no system in place whereby the Fire Department's Code Violation Reports were logged in, filed or memorialized in any way, and  that there was no method for keeping any records, either electronically or in hard copy form, of when and for what properties reports were received, to whom they were assigned, the date of any inspections, or the results thereof."

The grand jury found no action taken by the Codes Department on any of the Fire Department's findings for 104 Jay St.

Two criminal indictments resulted from the grand jury's investigation, and its report contained eight separate recommendations to the city for fixing systemic problems in the Codes Department.

The Daily Gazette has requested and received copies of all 14 Fire Department reports cited by the grand jury. 

City officials said last week, in response to the report's recommendations, that they have already made some corrections, are in the process of making others and are reviewing the rest of the grand jury's recommendations.

In the meantime, the Codes Department has been placed under the purview of the public safety commissioner, and Assistant Police Chief Jack Falvo has been given additional duties as chief of the Buildings Department.

"We just received those recommendations a couple days ago, and we're looking at all of them, and we are going to implement them as quickly as we can to make sure we're doing all the things we need to do," Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said.

"But I do know, at this point in time, through the Codes Department and the new oversight structure that they have that those are being followed up on 100 percent of the time," Falotico said.

Mayor Gary McCarthy said that, prior to the fire, he had been told the Fire Department violation reports were being followed up on. He only learned afterward, during the fire investigation, that they weren't, he said.

The grand jury report cited mounting frustration among Fire Department personnel that their reports were being ignored. It got to the point where they often chose not to file further reports because earlier ones had been ignored.

The grand jury report made no mention of other methods the Fire Department could have used to alert city officials of problems at 104 Jay St. A message left with the Fire Department this past week was returned by Falotico.

Falotico said he wouldn't speculate on what could have been done differently. He read the grand jury report the same time as everyone else.

"Obviously, it's not a flattering report in general and it seems like a lot of things should have been done differently," he said. "All I can tell you is, since then, we've already taken a number of steps that they outlined in the report, as the DA acknowledged in the press release. The other ones, we're in the process of working on and implementing.

"So the important thing is that the things are getting done right, now," Falotico added. "And that's what I can tell you for sure."

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.

Thomas' brother Michael Roberson called the failures cited by the grand jury shocking.

"How many other facilities, apartments, rentals are in the same condition?" Roberson asked.

He also questioned why it took the deaths of his brother and the three others to bring the issues to light.

Asked how residents can find out if their own buildings are safe, Falotico said anyone can call the Codes Department and ask. The existence of complaints is public information. Residents can also make their own complaints.

Falotico said that the system in place now should ensure Fire Department messages are received by the proper officials and are acted on.

"If anybody believes that that's not happening, then we're going to make sure that those concerns are being addressed and it continues to be 100 percent," Falotico said.

The final Fire Department report cited by the grand jury concerning 104 Jay St. was for a call that came in Oct. 6, 2014. Fire Department responses to calls from the building dropped dramatically later that month, as the building manager canceled the fire alarm monitoring contract. The Codes Department then missed a fax notifying them of the contract's cancellation. By the time of the fire, the alarm had become completely inoperable.

The 14 Fire Department code violation reports on 104 Jay St., including the date of the reports, deficiencies found and any added comments:

  • Sept. 26, 2012: No doors at any stairwells; Tenant reset alarm prior to firefighters' arrival, "when advised not to do so, tenant explained that landlord leaves alarm panel door open and has showed all tenants how to silence."
  • June 25, 2013: Building unsecured, no responder at scene
  • June 27, 2013: Leaking water in basement
  • Oct. 26, 2013: No Knox Box  (a fast-access entrance key holder for emergency responders) or other way of gaining entry. No working doorbell. Alarm activating for no reason. "Ongoing issue with alarm."
  • Nov. 8, 2013: Several residents reported heating issues
  • Dec. 12, 2013: Secondary door in lobby unsecured. Apartment doors damaged due to firefighter response
  • Dec. 20, 2013: No way to access building without forcing doors. "This has been an ongoing problem with this address for medical calls and fire calls."
  • Dec. 28, 2013: Stairway railing missing anchors. No local responder for building. No Knox Box.
  • Feb. 6, 2014 (5 p.m.): Leaking water. Improper door installation
  • Feb. 6, 2014 (11:39 p.m.): No observation notes
  • March 1, 2014: Unable to locate building management contact, "building poses numerous hazards that can/will be fatal to its occupants and EMS agencies."
  • March 3, 2014: No Knox Box. "This has been an ongoing problem without resolution for approximately 4 months."
  • June 14, 2014: Fallen portion of ceiling in apartment, water leaking. Tub water in another apartment slightly on. Multiple places in hallway near apartment where water had leaked. Building responder notified, as well as code enforcement. Made codes supervisor directly aware of water issues by phone.
  • Oct. 6, 2014: "This address is a common problem for us. No Knox Box, no responder that answers his phone, front door is easily opened by gently pushing on it, alarm panel in vestibule is wide open residents frequently acknowledge and silence the alarm prior to SFD arrival, garbage and debris in hallway on each floor, ceiling tiles on each floor are loose, falling or missing exposing smoke detector wires. Individual apartments are pad-locked from the outside, fire escape doors are wide open without proper lighting. In general, this building is in very poor condition from basement to roof."
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