Industry wins court case where municipality limited fire alarm business

Massachusetts’ high court says a city can’t require use of just one fire system when the state building code allows four
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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass.—After a three-year legal battle, the industry emerged victorious in a case in which the city of Springfield was mandating that commercial and other buildings have a municipally-connected fire alarm system that uses a radio box instead of other types of systems allowed by the state’s building code.

The industry, which claimed the city ordinance restricted free trade and resulted in a municipality using tax dollars to compete with private companies, took the case to court, contending the ordinance violated state law.

After years of legal wrangling, the state’s highest court agreed. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that the ordinance requiring the installation of one specific system when four were allowed by the state code was a violation of the code. The city had issued a $3,000 fine to the St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral for not complying with the 2006 ordinance after the church renovated its cultural center in April 2009.

The ruling will impact other cities and towns statewide, some of which had followed Springfield’s lead, said George Condon, president and owner of Northeast Security Solutions, based here. He’s a spokesman for the Joint Fire Committee, a coalition of state organizations and private companies that came together to fight the ordinance.

“I’m thrilled,” Condon told Security Systems News this week. The group raised $35,000 to help the Greek church take the case to court, he said.

He said the church defied the ordinance because “it was going to cost them about $6,000 for this [radio] box by the time it was installed and programmed, versus a two-line communicator that was going to be a couple hundred dollars.”

The church ended up getting the communicator, which was allowed by the state building code, and got fined, Condon said. The fine in the ordinance is set at $100 per day.   The high court upheld a ruling by a lower court judge and said the state building code “pre-empts inconsistent local regulations” that limit what’s allowed. If all of the state’s cities and towns were allowed to approve “restrictive ordinances and bylaws, a patchwork of building regulations would ensue,” the court said.

Although not part of the legal argument in the case, Condon told SSN that the Springfield ordinance “essentially had restricted free trade as well.”

He said that because hard-wired municipal lines are getting expensive to maintain and are antiquated, “the city wanted to sunset the system and put in a new [wireless] system.”

Condon said Springfield required that property owners put in a radio box by SigCom which they had to acquire from its area distributor, and the city did the fire alarm monitoring, for which it charged property owners.

Local alarm companies, Condon said, “really got squeezed out of the monitoring of the system, they really got squeezed out of the equipment sale, and essentially the city is competing with them directly with tax dollars.”

He said other municipalities copied the Springfield ordinance. “There are a number of them that have already followed it, and some of them were starting to put it in place, but put that on hold to see what would happen with the Springfield case,” he said. Some haven’t mandated the radio boxes but are “strongly recommending” them, he said. Such a recommendation by an AHJ (authority having jurisdiction) can be very intimidating to property owners, Condon said.

Will the court decision cause those communities to back off? Condon said the coalition is prepared to fight if they don’t.

“I think some will, but there’s still several that have the attitude that ‘We don't care what happened in Springfield,’” he said. “It’s the highest court in the state and it’s now case law statewide, but they want to try to ignore it, so we may have to go after them a little bit.  Obviously it will be much easier now based on the fact that this case exists.”

He said he’s still trying to find out how many radio boxes are being monitored by municipalities in the state. He estimated he’d find 10,000, but he’s only looked at 31 of the state’s 351 municipalities and has found 8,000 radio boxes, so his estimate may be low. “I figured if there were 10,000 radio boxes in Massachusetts, that would be like $4 million a year coming out of the alarm companies, and essentially we’re competing with municipalities,” he said.

SSN has reported on a similar situation in Illinois, where the industry has been battling attempts by municipal entities to monopolize fire alarm monitoring in that state. But the battle in Illinois has taken place in federal court over such issues as restraint of free trade.

In the Massachusetts case, Condon said, “we were going after a violation of the state building code.”

“Springfield tried to limit something that was in the state building code, and essentially we got a declaratory judgment saying the state building code has pre-emption over local ordinances, and that’s really what the crux of what our ruling was,” Condon said.

Springfield officials have contended that the radio boxes are safer and faster than third-party alarms, something the industry disputes. But the court said municipalities have the recourse of seeking changes in the state building code through legislative action.

Comments

Hopefully this will set a precedent for other towns and states. I'm glad to hear that the court upheld that state building code preempts inconsistent local regulations - there is already enough of a crazy patchwork of local regulations. Forcing business owners to use a single local-mandated piece of equipment and city monitoring is a big step too far. Congratulations to the church and group that took this to court. Gary SimpliSafe Home Security Systems