Mass. city may have to pay for limiting fire alarm options

The state says Lowell illegally required property owners to buy fire alarm boxes from single vendor
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Monday, October 1, 2012

LOWELL, Mass.—This city may end up paying rebates to property owners after it required them to buy fire alarm boxes from just one vendor, preventing them from purchasing the boxes more cheaply from other sources, according to newspaper reports.

Lowell is trying to make amends after the state Inspector General’s Office determined last year that the city bypassed bidding laws in procuring a new fire alarm system and forcing building owners to buy radio boxes from just one company, the Lowell Sun recently reported. Paying rebates is one proposal the City Council was considering in September to make restitution to owners, at least one of whom claims to have paid as much as $2,475 for a radio box when it could have been purchased from another company for as little as $1,100, the paper said in a Sept. 10 report.

The scrutiny that the state has cast on Lowell is a positive step for the private fire alarm industry in terms of its concerns about municipalities taking over fire alarm monitoring, according to George Condon, president and owner of Northeast Security Solutions of West Springfield, Mass.

Condon is a spokesman for the Joint Fire Committee, a coalition of state organizations and private companies that came together to wage a legal battle against a fire alarm ordinance approved by the city of Springfield, Mass. That ordinance required commercial and other buildings to have a municipally-connected fire alarm system that used radio boxes instead of other types of systems allowed by the state’s building code.

Last spring, the state’s highest court sided with the industry and ruled the ordinance was illegal. The ruling carries implications for other municipalities in the state.

Condon said he believes the Springfield ruling is causing state officials to pay more attention to municipal fire monitoring. He told Security Systems News that now the state is “looking a little more closely at the industry and what has been going on. … Slowly word is getting out that [municipalities] can’t mandate these things.”

Condon said he believes Lowell was not alone in the practice. “I suspect there are a number of towns in this state that if the [inspector general] were to sort of dig through them, didn’t go through the proper bidding channels” when it comes to fire monitoring equipment and radio boxes, he said.

Condon contends the municipalities “see it as a revenue stream” because the specific companies they contract with offer them monitoring equipment for a reduced price or for free “with the assumption that they’re going to force the business owners into buying these radio boxes. … It’s obviously restraining free trade and it’s highly illegal, in my opinion.”

Also, he said, the municipalities’ contention that the arrangement is quicker and safer has not been demonstrated. “It’s never been proven that it’s a better system, which they’re always trying to tout,” he said.