PAWTUCKET—Despite the sight of flashing lights, firetrucks, and American Red Cross volunteers at Fogarty Manor on Friday morning, there was no cause for alarm. The city-owned high-rise was the scene of a “mock disaster” drill designed to provide training in evacuation protocol for a multi-unit building of this type.
The exercise brought together the city's Emergency Management Agency, the Pawtucket Police and Fire departments, the Pawtucket Housing Authority (which operates Fogarty Manor), the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army of Pawtucket. Also assisting as emergency responders were Fire Department from Central Falls, North Cumberland and Valley Falls.
The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA)also participated in the drill in an effort to test its new emergency transportation evacuation protocol, and members of Central Falls High School's new Student Emergency Response Team (SERT) helped out by playing the role of elderly residents who were forced to leave the building.
The drill was based around a fictitious scenario where a fire breaks out in a 6th floor apartment of the 300-unit high-rise building. The fire has knocked out the electrical system and caused smoky conditions which create the need for an evacuation of the residents. Fifty people, a mix of Fogarty Manor tenants and the Central Falls' SERT students, volunteered to participate in the evacuation drill.
Once all the volunteers were safely evacuated from the building, they were directed to board RIPTA buses and were then transported to the designated “recovery shelter” at St. Mary's Church Hall. Once there, they received food and water (actually a “thank-you lunch”) from the American Red Cross, as well as a talk on fire safety.
Pawtucket's EMA Director Normand Menard called the drill a “no-fault exercise” where capabilities, plans, systems and processes will be evaluated. “We're just trying to find out if there are any gaps,” he said. The point is also to test the communications by police and fire personnel and the various responding agencies.
“The whole idea is to make everyone as ready as possible if a disaster of this or another type should occur in the city and prepare for it as best we can to assure public safety,” said Menard. He said that funding for the drill was provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Lammis Vargas, liaison to Mayor Donald Grebien, said the mayor and Director of Administration Antonio Pires couldn't be there due to scheduling conflicts, but that both had “put in a lot of time to make sure the drill occurred effectively.” She and other city officials said the exercise had been several weeks in the planning stages.
Jim Ruthowski, director of protective services for the Pawtucket Housing Authority, said that while the exercise will be beneficial for personnel of the city-operated high-rises, the management staff of several other privately owned housing facilities in Pawtucket and Central Falls were also invited to witness the drill. “It's all about communicating with each other in an emergency” he said.
Pawtucket Fire Chief William Sisson noted that normally, a fire in a high-rise would not require an evacuation of this type. He said most of the local buildings have electrical generators which would keep the air conditioning and ventilation systems flowing. He also said the city's high-rises are built to be self-contained in the event of a fire, so residents are actually instructed to stay in their rooms and wait for firefighters to come to them. Typically, a fire in an apartment unit prompts only the evacuation of the fire floor itself and the floor above. “However, we want to make sure everyone has an evacuation plan,” he noted.
Central Falls Fire Chief Robert Bradley said he also saw the value in holding such an exercise, noting that his city has five senior housing complexes. He added that he has several new firefighters on the department who would benefit from the evacuation protocol training.
Sisson said the drill had been planned for several weeks and was not organized in response to a recent Channel 10 news report in which the city was criticized for allegedly not holding fire safety inspections at the high-rises as required under the state's fire statutes.
The chief agreed that while there were no records of such inspections, he said fire personnel are regularly inside all of the city's high-rises due to calls for medical service and also said that lectures and information on fire safety are provided at least once a year at tenant meetings. He added that Pawtucket's elderly and disabled housing is inspected annually by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and considers the city's facilities to be safe.
Cheryl Ihrig, property manager at Northern Plaza, which was the scene of a fatal fire on March 2, was one of several personnel from local high-rises who had been invited to observe the drill. She said it was “very timely,” coinciding with recent educational programs for tenants on safety and security. She also noted that her facility has its own evacuation plan and that inspections of fire alarms are done every three months.
Amy Alba, director of residential services at the privately operated Doyle Manor, also said that regular meetings about fires and other safety concerns are held for tenants and that members of the police and fire departments are often brought in as guest speakers on these topics. “But we always want to learn more. We want to learn all that we can” she said, of her attendance at the exercise.
Several Fogarty Manor tenants, watching from a bench outside, said they thought the mock disaster drill was a good idea.
Conrad Basiliere, who has lived at the high-rise for 11 years, said “We never had anything like this. I think it's great.” He said the tenants have been instructed about general fire safety in the building, such as where the stairwells are located and what to do if the fire alarm goes off. “You're informed, but we never had this,” he said, nodding at the large-scale exercise.
Charlie Black, a 7-year tenant who is also president of the Fogarty Manor Association, said he had never experienced a mock drill before but agreed it is “something that should be done more often.” He added that Fogarty has just received a new fire suppression system where each unit has a fire alarm with an intercom feature that alerts tenants to emergency situations.
A six-year tenant, who gave her name only as Nicole, said she thought the mock drill was “definitely a good idea, especially with all the craziness going on, bomb scares and such. You never know.”