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Fire safety measure draws questions

Some express cost concerns while others tout benefits

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

Grayson city council held their first reading of a measure designed to increase fire and safety response last week – though the majority of council voted not to accept that reading after hearing criticism from local business owner Shadow Skaggs.

Councilpersons Sudy Walker, Terry Stamper, and Bradley Cotten voted “no” on accepting the first reading, with Pearl Crum the lone “aye” vote. Councilman Troy Combs, who called for the motion, abstained. Coincidentally councilman Jerry Yates was absent following a possible burglary call at the IKORCC union hall that he had to respond to.

The measure in question would require the installation of Knox boxes in all new commercial buildings, existing commercial buildings undergoing renovations that require Planning Board approval, any existing commercial building with automatic fire detection systems, and multi-family residential structures like apartment buildings or duplexes.

Knox boxes are a brand name product, produced by the Knox company, that can only be accessed by a secure key. The fire department is the only group with access to that key, and access is restricted to the chief, assistant chief, and other senior officers. When ordering the boxes, fire chief Greg Felty explained, the business gives the zip code of their fire district, and Knox provides them with a box that is only accessible by their local fire department’s key. Inside that Knox box businesses can place instructions, access codes, or keys to exterior and any interior doors they may want the fire department to access. But it can only be accessed by someone with access to one of the limited number of keys the fire department has.

That, Felty explained, is why this particular company is specified by name. Currently no other company can provide the level of security that Knox does.

But that security comes with a price. The cheapest style of Knox box starts at around $500, and goes up from there.

That cost was the first thing that Skaggs objected to. He said it could be cost prohibitive for existing businesses and might deter builders from constructing new buildings.

Disagreement over the impact of the cost on new buildings led to a brief, prickly exchange between Felty and Skaggs. Felty, conceding that it might be an expensive ask for existing building owners, said that an additional $500 in costs on the construction of a brand new building wasn’t an exorbitant ask, prompting Skaggs to respond, “I’m glad $500 isn’t a lot of money for you.”

Skaggs also worried about security, stating that he has sensitive medical records in his building and needs to protect the privacy of his patients. He worried about someone being able to access the Knox box – either through undisciplined securing of the key or other means – and then having access to those records.

Volunteer firefighter Michael Harper asked Skaggs if those records were locked in file cabinets or other secure locations, and Skaggs said they were. But, he said, giving someone else access to a key to the front door could make those files less secure. Harper countered that, in the event of a small fire that required the fire department to force entry, the records would be less secure after the fire was out than if the fire department was able to contain the blaze and then relock the door.

But Skaggs final objection had nothing to do with cost or privacy concerns, and could not be countered by argument. Ultimately, he said, he simply did not like being told he had to do this thing.

“It turns me off to be forced to do it,” Skaggs said, adding that if it had been presented as an optional choice it might have been something he would have considered.

Stamper, who also owns a local business, said he would be more open to passing a final version if it struck the provision under section C, requiring the boxes for existing commercial buildings with fire alarm and suppression systems.

Cotten echoed Stamper’s concerns, saying it was a “hard ask” to have a small business “pony up” $500 or more.

Business owner Larry Doucet, however, countered that it “really isn’t” a hard ask. He said it ultimately benefited businesses if, for instance, it saved them the costs of replacing an entry door or window which can be significantly more expensive. More importantly, he noted, as a landlord it could save a tenant’s life.

Though council failed to throw their support behind the first reading, a vote on that reading isn’t strictly necessary, city clerk Duane Suttles reminded them, as city council doesn’t vote to approve a measure until the second reading.

In his final statements to council, Felty explained that the benefits to both the fire department and businesses outweigh the initial investment. While the cost of installing the box might save on the potential costs of doors or windows, he said, it would definitely save the business money on insurance discounts, which could pay for the costs of the box in short order.

“In the buildings we have now, we’ve never had an issue,” Felty said. “And it helps us do our job.”

He noted that in some cases the fire department responds to what is a false alarm, but they can’t leave until someone with a key shows up to shut down the alarm. In instances where that business owner or manager doesn’t live in the city limits, he said, they have had to wait upwards of two hours for someone to show and shut down the alarm.

“These are volunteers, who have to get up and work,” Felty said, adding they shouldn’t be kept waiting for hours when there is a simpler solution.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com



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