Massachusetts city fights to control fire alarm monitoring
LOWELL, Mass.—Massachusetts’ highest court ruled last year that municipalities can’t require businesses to install just one type of fire alarm system when the state building code allows for four choices. But the city of Lowell contends that decision doesn’t apply to it.
This is the latest development in the fight against municipalities monopolizing fire alarm monitoring, which also is occurring in Illinois. But Lowell is going to be on the losing end of the battle, an industry spokesman predicted to Security Systems News.
“I think it’s cut and dried, to be honest with you,” said George Condon, president and owner of West Springfield, Mass.-based Northeast Security Solutions. “I think Lowell will lose.”
Condon is the spokesman for the Joint Fire Committee, a coalition of state organizations and private companies that came together to help wage a three-year legal battle against the city of Springfield, Mass. which had an ordinance mandating that commercial and other buildings have a municipally-connected fire alarm system using a radio box instead of other types of systems allowed by the state’s building code.
The industry argued the municipality was restricting free trade and using tax dollars to compete with private fire alarm monitoring companies. The Supreme Judicial Court last spring ruled that the Springfield ordinance was a violation of the state’s building code. And, according to the Lowell Sun newspaper, the state fire marshal’s office subsequently sent out a notice to all fire departments across the state, saying that the Springfield case “is precedent and applies to every jurisdiction across the state.”
Lowell’s fire chief had been mandating that buildings with 13 or more residential units have a new wireless alarm system. Then, according to the Lowell Sun, the city reversed that policy after the Springfield decision last May, but then decided to change it back again.
Lowell argues the Springfield case doesn’t apply because the city is applying its mandate under the state fire code, which says buildings with 13 or more units must have a fire alarm system that provides automatic fire-department notification, the newspaper said. The city contends that means signals must go directly to its dispatch center without human intervention at a central station.
But a Northeast Housing Court judge recently disagreed with Lowell’s argument. The case went to that court after the Lowell Fire Department filed a complaint against Princeton Properties of Lowell because it refused the city’s mandate to connect to the new wireless alarm system.
According to the Lowell Sun, the judge dismissed the city’s complaints against Princeton Properties, citing the recent decision by the state’s high court. In fact, the judge wrote that there was “no meaningful distinction” between the Springfield and Lowell cases, the newspaper said.
However, Lowell has appealed the housing court decision, the newspaper said.
Condon said the city won’t be successful. “They lost at the local level and they’ve appealed but I think it will be upheld all the way up the line,” he told SSN.
He said Lowell is not the only municipality in the state refusing to give up plans to take control of fire alarm monitoring.
“The Springfield case itself should have sent the message and they still don’t want to accept it,” Condon said. “They’re really in denial, in my opinion, and they’re not checking with their city solicitors or the state statute or the attorney general’s office or even the fire marshal’s office, which has backed this thing as well. It really baffles me every time I hear somebody say, ‘Well, it doesn’t apply to us.’”
He said he doesn’t buy municipalities’ claims that they want control of monitoring for public safety reasons—noting that most UL-listed central stations can turn around a fire signal in less than 15 seconds. Instead, he believes cash-strapped municipalities are seeking an extra revenue stream in fire alarm monitoring. “I think there’s a lot [of reasons] on the financial side,” Condon said.