The Rocco Impreveduto Towers senior housing building has had a record number of smoke alarms due to unattended cooking in 2012. The alarms have led to 33 visits by the Secaucus Fire Department so far – more than double the number of visits as last year.
The Towers, located at 600 County Ave., are a six-story 100-unit complex operated by the Secaucus Housing Authority. The authority has taken measures to address the issue, which they suspect is a result of an overly sensitive smoke alarm system. They called in the company that services the alarm to reprogram the system on Aug. 15.
Since then, the authority plans to monitor the number of unattended cooking fire calls made over the next two weeks to assess the true cause of the issue.
Triggering main alarm
The Fire Department was called out to respond to unattended cooking fires eight times in 2010, and 12 times in 2011. However, since May 20 of this year there have been 25 calls for unattended cooking fires.
“There is clearly something wrong here,” said Christopher Marra, executive director of the Secaucus Housing Authority.
On Aug. 13 a resident was at her stove cooking when she set off the alarm. Apparently, her cooking created a lot of steam and the stove exhaust fan was not turned on.
“It was not unattended,” said Marra. “It wasn’t that a pot melted or that something went on fire…She was cooking like she probably cooks every day. That is troublesome.”
“Stand by your pan!” – Chief George Schoenrock
The service company returned on Aug. 15 to reprogram the system so that alarm verification happens before an actual general alarm is initiated. In the meantime, Marra has made it mandatory that all residents run their exhaust fan when cooking.
Fire chief blames distraction
“Unattended cooking is an event that can be avoided,” said Chief George Schoenrock. He blames inattention and distraction for the high volume of calls. He said that the smoke alarm system is “probably working the way it should work.”
Schoenrock went over fire safety and prevention procedures during a 4th of July event to 30 to 40 residents.
“I gave them a whole lecture on frying pan fires, flammable products,” said Schoenrock. “My closing statement was ‘Stand by your pan!’ ”
“We have never had an actual working fire in one of those kitchens,” said Schoenrock.
Each time the fire alarm rings, all five volunteer fire companies respond. The first engine and a ladder truck head to the property. The other three engines and a rescue unit, along with three chief cars and other apparatus, is staged on Dorigo Lane.
If the fire call turns out to be an unattended cooking call or “burnt food,” as the chief put it, then he sends everyone home except for the one engine and ladder truck.
About 20 to 22 volunteer firefighters respond to a middle-of-the-day call, on average.
Since the Fire Department is volunteer-based, the true burden on the municipality comes through wear and tear on the equipment and time, especially given the high volume of calls and the fact that municipal employees who volunteer get called away from work.
“These unnecessary responses cause a burden in regard to wear and tear,” said Schoenrock. “We are sending $5 million dollars worth of equipment to a frying pan fire.”
Many of the firefighters work for the Department of Public Works.
“The DPW guys are the backbone for the daytime responses,” said Schoenrock.
The volunteers get a stipend from municipal funds based on the number of fire calls they respond to.
Schoenrock estimated that each unattended cooking call at Impreveduto Towers takes about 30 minutes from the time of the call to the point where the alarm is reset after they determine the cause. To date the calls have not interfered with another emergency, according to the chief.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.