Everything You Wanted To Know About Fire Alarm Boxes . . .

With all of the controversy surrounding the fire alarm boxes in the city, here are the facts, some of which have been overshadowed by the controversy:

Q: Why did the city switch to a wireless fire alarm system?

A: The old system was about 100 years old and barely a step above the telegraph. It was run through telephone lines and when there was a short circuit, due to the age of the infrastructure, it could knock out the ability for fire calls from large buildings and institutions to be transmitted to the 911 center. Figuring out where exactly the problem causing the short circuit was, was complicated and took a significant amount of time, which became both a public safety hazard as well as a drain on city overtime accounts.

Q: Why did the city insist on using a direct fire box system?

A: The direct system immediately sounds the alarm in all of the city’s fire stations, providing for a much quicker response time. With an indirect system, the alarm first sounds at a third-party dispatch center, where an employee has to call the Lowell Fire Department to report it. The dispatcher in Lowell then has to figure out where the building is and which companies to send out to the call. While the third-party alarm company employees are required to report the alarm to the LFD within 90 seconds, there have been times when they were not alerted for 10 to 12 minutes, or not at all. For the occupants of a burning building, as well as responding firefighters, 90 seconds could mean the difference between life and death. A quicker response also decreases the chance of the fire spreading to other dwellings and reduces the extent of property damage.

Q: Who was required to but these new boxes?

A: Residential buildings with 13 or more units were required but many other property owners opted to change to the new system because it was deemed a better system.

Q: How many boxes are there?

A: 303 total: 62 municipal boxes; 13 at the Lowell Housing Authority; 33 at UMass Lowell; and 195 at private entities.

Q: Why were they required to purchase the box from the same vendor the city used?

A: In order for the fire boxes connected to apartment buildings to ring through to the LFD they need to be the same box, programmed by the same vendor; otherwise they are not compatible.

Q: Why, as the Inspector General’s Office suggested, didn’t the city go out to bid separately for the municipal equipment and the boxes required for private property owners?

A: The city can only bid for the city. It is not legal for the city to go out to bid for a private entity. Additionally, even if the city could go out to bid for those private boxes, the only vendor eligible to win the bid would be East Coast Security, in order for the boxes to be compatible with the city’s equipment.

Q: Why did the city put this out to bid under Chapter 30B  (goods and services) rather than Chapter 149 (construction) as suggested by the Inspector General’s Office?

A: The city considered the fire boxes equipment. The IG’s office opined it should have been considered “construction” because they are hardwired to the building.

Q: What is the difference in process between how the city went out to bid, under Chapter 30B, and how the IG suggested they should have bid, under Chapter 149?

A: The ONLY difference between the two bidding methods is Chapter 149 requires the city to advertise once in the Central Registry. The city did advertise in the Sun, on the city’s website and purchasing bulletin board and in the state’s Goods and Services Bulletin. The city’s bid process met all of the other requirements of Chapter 149, in some instances exceeding those requirements.

Q: Did the way the city put the fire box system out to bid stifle competition?

A: No. The city received sealed proposals from six firms.

Q: Why was there such a wide range in the bids, from the low of $77,849 to a high of $394,500? Were the specifications issued by the city too vague?

A: No. The city asked for proposals for a direct system. Bidders could offer what they felt was the best solution for the city. Other than the high bidder (Mammoth Fire Alarms), most of the bids were similar. Mammoth offered a more comprehensive system than the others.  East Coast provided the best system at the lowest cost to the taxpayers.

Q: Are the owners of 13-plus unit buildings in Lowell paying more for fire boxes than those in other communities?

A: No.  While the price is lower in some communities, a survey of fire chiefs in 33 Massachusetts municipalities that have a direct system revealed the price is significantly higher than the $2,475 charged in Lowell in many locations. In Saugus a fire box costs $7,000; in Abington, $6,000; in Avon $5,000; in Boxboro $5446; in Plymouth $4,100; in Tewksbury $4,283; in Winthrop $4,800; $3,500 in Mansfield; $3,500 in Wrentham; $4,000 in Blackstone; $6,800 in Easthampton; $5,500 in Palmer; $5,000 in Wellesley; $3,000 in Westford; and $5,000 in Fairhaven.

Q: Do business and owners of multi-unit building in other cities and towns have a choice of vendors?

A: No. They, like their counterparts in Lowell, they have to purchase their boxes from the same vendor as the municipality, or the boxes will not work.

Q: Would the outcome have changed if the city went out to bid under Chapter 149 rather than Chapter 30B?

A: No.

Q: Why did the IG’s office get involved?

A: Because the city did not include all government entities that are bound by Massachusetts bidding laws. It was brought to their attention by the LHA, but that also includes UMass Lowell. As a result of not being included in the city’s bid, the LHA and UML were required to procure the boxes from a sole source. Bidding law requires sealed bids over $25,000, which they couldn’t do.

Q: Did the IG’s office penalize the city?

A: No. There was no fine issued and the IG did not require the city to rebid the job. They only made recommendations, which will be considered in future bidding processes.

Q: Was the LHA given a “sweetheart deal” by the city?

A: No. Some LHA properties were inadvertently included in the city’s bid. Therefore, they were able to purchase six boxes at the $1,175 price, but bought the other seven themselves, directly from East Coast.

Q: Have city property owners been paying a $275 annual monitoring fee?

A: No. The fee was approved in a 8-0 vote (then-Councilor Alan Kazanjian was absent) of the City Council on November 24, 2009. To date it has not been implemented.

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