The screeching sound of a fire alarm and smoke filling the halls is what many of the more than 80 residents of the Marshall Square retirement community woke to just after 3 a.m. last Tuesday.
As the residents were evacuated from the three-story building, they sat in metal folding chairs in front of the retirement community, watching the place they called home become engulfed in flames and burn to the ground.
Many citizens throughout the CSRA were left speechless while watching the news coverage of the intense fire that rapidly spread throughout the Evans complex, which had recently opened in late 2014 along Ronald Reagan Drive at North Belair Road.
During a press conference on the day of the fire, Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross probably said it best by describing the fire as “a tragedy that will be remembered for a long time in the county.”
While all of the community leaders commended the timely response and valiant efforts of the Columbia County Fire Department, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and Gold Cross EMS, there are still a lot of questions that remain regarding the construction of the building, the complex’s fire sprinkler system, the alarm service and the level of fire equipment needed to put out that severe of a fire.
The fact is that the three-story retirement community was built using wood framing, instead of a steel frame. Columbia County Deputy Fire Marshal Jerry Baldwin also confirmed this week that the fire sprinkler system consisted of PVC pipes instead of metal pipes.
Neither of these are violations of any of the county codes, but many local citizens are now asking whether the codes should be changed as a result of this horrific fire.
“I wouldn’t believe that we would have a certificate of occupancy if it didn’t meet all the codes that are necessary,” Wallen said during the press conference last week.
However, there is another question that is floating around the community that most dare not ask: Was the Columbia County Fire Department’s response to the fire at Marshall Square sufficient?
No one is questioning the firefighters’ efforts at the scene, but some are quietly asking whether the department had the necessary equipment to handle such an intense and deadly fire.
“Why didn’t they call for mutual aid for this fire?” asked one local veteran firefighter, who wished to speak to the Metro Spirit anonymously. “That building was really too big for them to handle. They don’t have enough equipment, as far as aerial trucks, to handle a fire that size. That fire should have had four aerial trucks on it as soon as they could get them up.”
However, Wallen insists that Columbia County had the necessary equipment on site to handle the fire.
“We had five pumper trucks and two aerial trucks at the scene,” Wallen said, referring to Columbia County Fire and Rescue. “The first alarm (at about 3:22 a.m.) brought three pumps and one aerial truck and some support vehicles. When they discovered the fire, they pulled the second alarm that sent two additional pumps and the next ladder truck. That was approximately 25 minutes later after the initial arrival.”
Wallen said a resident living on the third floor of Marshall Square was the first to notify Columbia County’s 9-1-1 Communications Center of the fire around 3:20 a.m.
“The fire was larger than it appeared on arrival because it was throughout the attic already,” Wallen explained. “It takes time for that to come out and be actually visible. But there was much more fire from the very beginning than it appeared from the outside.”
Upon arrival, Wallen said the fire department immediately began assisting with the evacuation of the Marshall Square residents with the help of the sheriff’s office and Gold Cross EMS.
“We also began staging an accountability system to determine how many persons had come out of the building,” he said. “I believe most of the residents were out within the first hour.”
Several Richmond County firefighters said they were watching the entire scene unfold on television, wondering why they weren’t being sent to the fire to assist Columbia County.
“I cut the TV on and saw the footage of the fire,” one local firefighter said. “We were there watching it and the guys were saying, ‘Man, why didn’t they call us?’ Usually when you have a major fire like that, you call in mutual aid.”
Columbia County could have had another aerial ladder truck on the scene shortly after the fire started if officials had contacted Richmond County, the city of Hephzibah or Fort Gordon, he said.
“But some people don’t want to call and ask for help because they think that’s saying, you can’t get the job done,” the firefighter said. “But the bottom line is, if you ain’t got enough equipment to handle it, you got to call for help. It seems like they waited too late to call.”
According to Cathy Plaster, the assistant director for Richmond County’s 9-1-1 Emergency Services, Richmond County received the mutual aid call from Columbia County at 6:13 a.m. on the day of the fire.
That’s about three full hours after Columbia County was first made aware of the fire at Marshall Square. By 5 a.m., the fire had destroyed most of the central part of the three-story building, valued at more than $25 million, and was rapidly spreading to the eastern wing.
Wallen said Columbia County requested Richmond County’s assistance around 6:15 a.m. to cover some of the fire stations that were unmanned due to the fact that those crews were sent to the Marshall Square fire.
“We did have two of their units stationed at our fire stations running the normal calls for us,” Wallen said, adding that the incident commander on the scene decided how those resources would be distributed. “Just because some Richmond County firefighters think they should have been sent to the scene, they weren’t there.”
Wallen said he would not try to justify the actions of the incident commander at the scene.
“Our incident commanders felt like where we needed Richmond County’s assistance was to run the normal day-to-day calls that we weren’t potentially able to cover from our fire stations,” Wallen said. “That is where the incident commanders felt that they needed them.”
Columbia County Fire Chief Paul Cooper said he completely stands by the actions of his department.
“I made the decision to call dispatch and ask if we could get two of our stations covered,” Cooper said. “These are two of our busiest stations. At the fire, I had six pumps and two ladder trucks and 104 firefighters. I had about everything that I needed over there. I needed those stations covered because we knew that (the Marshall Square fire) was going to be a long, drawn out thing and there were still going to be other emergencies. We had to account for that.”
As far as any concerns over whether the department could have used another aerial firetruck at the Marshall Square fire, Cooper said he felt that his department had all the equipment and manpower it needed.
“It was pretty much on fire all over the attic when we got there,” Cooper said. “And, actually, we had every available water source in the area utilized.”
Augusta-Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James said he would never question any actions by another fire department.
“I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw or what they were making their decisions based on, so I’m not going to second guess how somebody commanded a fire or what decisions were made,” James said. “We weren’t there. We didn’t see it. And that wouldn’t be fair of me.”
The only information James said he was given regarding the Marshall Square fire was that Richmond County was called at 6:13 a.m. to cover some of Columbia County’s stations.
“I was talking to the shift commander that morning on the phone. In fact, I called him and woke him up right at 6 o’clock and he and I were talking about the fire,” James said. “At that time, we hadn’t received any calls from Columbia County.”
After talking with the shift commander, he began calling a few more people within the department.
“Then, when I called back to the shift commander about 10 or 15 minutes later, he told me that we got the call that they wanted us to cover some engines from some other stations,” James said. “So, we sent two engines over there while their firefighters were at the fire. We were happy to give them any assistance that they asked for.”
Investigators from Georgia’s Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are currently reviewing the fire.
Along with the state and federal investigations, there has also been a number of media reports regarding the fact that the building’s monitoring company, Security Central, did not alert Columbia County’s fire department about the fire at Marshall Square until about 5:15 a.m. last Tuesday.
Security Central’s emergency call came in about two hours after the fire had already broken out in the luxury apartment complex.
In response to the news reports that authorities weren’t properly notified by Security Central, the Statesville, N.C.-based company defended its actions, claiming it was not responsible for any delays.
“There are a number of separate companies that are involved in the transmission of any fire or smoke alarm signal,” Brett Springall, chief executive officer of Security Central, said in a prepared statement. “Those include the installer of the alarm equipment in the building, as well as the telecommunications company through whose lines the signal transmits. Based on the limited information available at this time, it is unclear to us whether any of those systems was involved in any transmission delay.”
Springhall insisted that Security Central received the first alarm signal from Marshall Square at 5:12 a.m. on June 2.
Exactly 34 seconds later, he said the company had completed its phone call to Columbia County’s fire department.
“Security Central did not install or maintain the detection, sprinkler, alarm panel equipment, or phone lines at the Marshall Square facility,” Springall stated. “Our company has no control over those systems.”
The fire department had also been called to Marshall Square on three other occasions since the retirement resort opened late last year.
The Nebraska-based company, Resort Lifestyle Communities, which owns Marshall Square insists that “safety is always a top priority.”
“Each apartment is equipped with smoke detectors and sprinklers,” the Resort Lifestyle Communities’ website states. “Every resident receives an emergency pendant that connects to Marshall Square’s central emergency response system. At the push of a button our 24/7 personnel is alerted that the resident needs assistance and we respond immediately.”
Resort Lifestyle Communities has more than a dozen similar luxury retirement communities across the country in states such as Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.
The company insists its buildings meet “all comprehensive safety codes, complying with federal, state, and local regulations.”
Resort Lifestyle Communities claim their complexes are built using “fire resistant material in constructing and furnishing the building” and are equipped with door alarms, fire alarms and sprinklers.
“They have passed all inspections by state and community regulated agencies,” the website states.
In the case of Marshall Square, Columbia County Battalion Chief Jeremy Wallen said it appeared the sprinkler system was operational.
“Yes, there is an active sprinkler system inside,” Wallen said. “At some point, the sprinklers were working.”
But some people have questioned whether the PVC pipes used in the sprinkler system were adequate for a building that size.
“The sprinkler system was PVC, so when it was burning down from the attic, it was melting the PVC,” said one firefighter, who asked to remain anonymous. “Once it melts, the rest of the line is no good.”
The firefighter also said using all-wood framing can cause a building to burn hotter than one that is constructed using a metal frame.
“I’ve seen a lot of training films on newly constructed buildings and how they burn,” he said. “They burn faster and hotter than older buildings.”
However, when it comes to using PVC pipes in sprinkler systems, Columbia County Deputy Fire Marshal Jerry Baldwin said its not unusual.
“Yes, it’s common,” he said.
In fact, most regulations and model building codes do not restrict the use of plastic pipes by occupancy type or type of construction, according to a recent national study by the state of California.
In 2012, Dr. Duane Priddy, a former principal scientist for Dow Plastics for more than 40 years, performed an extensive study on PVC and CPVC pipes and wrote an article called, “Why Do PVC & CPVC Pipes Occasionally Fail?”
In the article, Priddy states that PVC and CPVC pipes and fittings are “excellent products” that have been successfully used for decades.
“There is a low failure rate and the use of PVC/CPVC materials offer significant advantages over metal piping materials including ease of installation,” Priddy wrote. “However, as with all plumbing products including metal piping, occasionally a pipe or fitting may fail. When a failure does occur, our experience indicates that most often the failure can be linked to improper installation practices.”
Over the next several weeks, as the more than 80 former residents of Marshall Square try to cope with this tragic fire, there will be a complete review of the facility and the emergency response.
While there are a lot of differing opinions about the fire and the retirement community, most people agree that Marshall Square is extremely fortunate that more lives weren’t lost in this terrible fire.
“I feel like an even worse tragedy has been averted,” Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said, commending the efforts of the fire department, EMS, Emergency Management and the sheriff’s office. “So that’s a good thing in this particular case.”