CONWAY — State Rep. Anita Burroughs says it’s “unacceptable” that Red Jacket Mountain View Resort guests last month were made to jump or swing themselves from balcony to balcony to escape a massive fire that destroyed an unsprinkled wing of the building.
The fire broke out Saturday, April 30. The cause has not been determined. Various news outlets, including the Sun, have reported that guests were seen jumping from the balconies or swinging themselves to a lower balcony to escape. Since the fire, authorities have said that sprinklers were not required in the 1971-built south wing due to its age and design.
Burroughs (D-Bartlett) who sits on the House Commerce Committee said it’s a “miracle” no one was killed.
“It just sounded like a close call for a lot of people,” said Burroughs. “I think that’s unacceptable in terms of saying, ‘Oh, well, hope it doesn’t happen again.’”
Over the course of the next few months, Burroughs wants to assemble a bipartisan group of lawmakers to craft legislation aimed at making sure that this type of disaster doesn’t happen again. Not only because of the potential for loss of life but because New Hampshire has a strong tourism industry. She said legislation could be filed over the summer.
“I want to talk to all the parties who would be involved including businesses, fire departments ... to get their perspective before moving forward,” said Burroughs. “One of the things I’m curious about, as part of this exploration, is to find out whether hotels of a certain size should require sprinklers, even though they’ve been grandfathered out of that requirement.”
Conway Village Fire Chief Steve Solomon, who is also the town emergency management director, said when the Red Jacket was built, designers had the option of either installing sprinklers or having each unit have a door to the outdoors either at ground level or on a balcony.
“That was considered a sufficient exit. Nowadays, a building of that size and nature would definitely be sprinkled,” Solomon said, adding older buildings have to be brought up to code after renovation work is done.
A reporter researched “grandfathering” and found an article written by attorney C. Christine Fillmore in 2008 titled “But, It’s Grandfathered! Six Common Myths about Nonconforming Uses.”
“Zoning ordinances and land use regulations are not supposed to be retroactive; they ordinarily apply only to new or altered uses of land,” said Fillmore. “However, this protection is not absolute.”
Fillmore refers to a case called Fischer v. NH State Building Code Review Board, which was decided in 2006.
“There is no such thing as an inherent or vested right to imperil the health or impair the safety of the community,” the court stated.
“It would be a sad commentary on the law if municipalities were powerless to compel the adoption of the best methods for protecting life in such cases simply because the confessedly faulty method in use was the method provided by law at the time of its construction.”
Fillmore, in her article states, “Even a building which is grandfathered under local zoning may have to be modified within a ‘reasonable time’ as determined by the State Fire Marshal to bring it into compliance with the fire code.”
The Sun asked North Conway Fire Chief Pat Preece if perhaps he could ask the fire marshal to review older hotels and see if he can give those who don’t comply with modern code a deadline.
“I don’t think I can do that legally,” said Preece, who encouraged the Sun to contact Fire Marshal Sean Toomey.
Preece also said the Fischer case had to do with building code, not fire code. However, Fillmore’s article said it had to do with fire code.
The Sun’s attempts to reach Toomey through Public Information Officer Amy McLaughlin were unsuccessful.
The Sun asked Solomon about Fillmore’s article. He said grandfathering isn’t a legal term. He said the law describes buildings as being “new” or “existing.”
He said new buildings are those that are built when the current code is in place. Existing buildings were built before the current code took effect.
According to the Fire Marshal’s Office, “Automatic sprinkler systems in new hotels became a fire code requirement in 1991 for buildings that are not high-rises.”
Solomon also said towns could implement stricter rules than the state code, but existing buildings would probably be grandfathered from town rules, too.
Solomon also said the Red Jacket’s egress and fire breaks between rooms allowed occupants to get out.
“I would point out that although the fire was quite large and the loss is felt by both the hotel and the community, these codes are designed to protect life and they, in fact, did that,” said Solomon. “Even with how fast that fire ran, everyone got out.”
On Tuesday, the Sun asked several questions about the fire. Chairman David Weathers questioned the reporter’s statement that people were jumping from balconies.
“So there were a couple of people on the balcony that transferred over to another one but I don’t believe there’s anybody that jumped from the balcony,” said Weathers, adding there’s a “big difference” between jumping and “transferring” from one balcony to another.
The reporter replied, in any case perhaps it’s time there’s a higher standard when it comes to fire egress.
The Sun also suggested to selectmen perhaps they or Conway’s fire precincts could ask the fire marshal to review old buildings in Conway and give those that aren’t sprinkled or up to code a reasonable time to modernize.
Selectman Mary Carey Seavey said she was “not qualified” to do that but the precinct fire departments were capable of addressing those questions and Weathers agreed with Seavey.
“Like Mary said, between the chiefs and the fire marshal’s office, I believe in their expertise,” said Weathers.