At least eight buildings have been impacted or lost to fires in Old Town since 2018. That means in just two years, families, university students and business owners have lost important, foundational parts of their lives to flames. Most recently, Old Town fell victim to two separate fires just three days apart. On Sept. 22, the building next to Yamas Bar and Grill in downtown Old Town was heavily damaged in a nighttime fire that spread to neighboring buildings. On Sept. 25, a fire in an Old Town apartment building left nine adults and two children without a home. It seems that devastating fires have become almost commonplace in our small college community. With these surges of life-altering events, the town of Old Town should come together as a community to support those affected and take a second look at their building and fire safety ordinances.
It’s obvious to anyone renting out apartments or driving down Stillwater Avenue that many buildings in Old Town are on the older side. This can be advantageous in some ways to college students who are looking to rent out bedrooms or houses that won’t break their usually limited banks. However, older buildings also run the risk of having higher fire danger.
Currently, the Town of Old Town complies with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) -1 Fire Prevention Code, 2006 Edition, the International Building Code, 2009 Edition, and NFPA – 101 Life Safety Code, 2006 Edition. These documents lay out rules, regulations and standards that different buildings need to meet in order to be in compliance with town ordinances.
But the NFPA releases new Fire Prevention codes and Life Safety Codes every three years. Currently, there are four updated versions of each set of codes, all with new amendments and additions to previous years’ regulations.
Currently, the 2006 Fire Prevention and Life Safety Codes have four compliance options for the different types of buildings in Old Town.
The first compliance option applies to apartment buildings that are three or fewer stories in height and have ten or fewer dwelling units. Buildings that meet these requirements do not have to have fire suppression or detection systems installed throughout the units. The second option applies to apartment buildings that have a complete fire detection and notification system and requires that buildings that meet this standard must have fire alarm systems installed throughout the units.
The third compliance option includes buildings that have fire sprinkler protection in select areas, including corridors, stairs and at every unit door. This option does not require sprinklers in living areas. The fourth and final option applies to apartment buildings that have an automatic fire sprinkler system throughout the residence and requires that all areas of the dwelling unit be provided with sprinkler protection.
Many newer apartment complexes in the Old Town and Orono area, such as The Avenue or the Reserve, meet the compliance options that include sprinkler systems. Yet many, if not most, old houses and apartments are equipped only by fire alarms.
Policy and regulations grow and change with time in order to adapt to circumstances, technology and new knowledge. For example, smoke and fire detector regulations have changed throughout time to improve safety. The first code from 1976 required alarms only near bedrooms. Then, in 1981, a new code implemented a rule that activation of a detector must be audible within closed bedrooms. Then in 1994 and again in 1997, new codes updated rules which required detectors to be interconnected on all levels.
In times like this, when tragedy strikes, we often actively seek out the cause. Whether these local fires have been caused by accident, outdated regulations or resident mishaps, they impact real people trying to live their lives, and no matter what, we should be taking steps to help them and prevent others from the same tragedies.
The town of Old Town should take this time to take a look at their current fire safety and building codes and consider updating their compliance with some of the newer recommended codes from the NFPA. The Old Town community has rallied around their fellow citizens to provide aid, donate money and extend support for those affected by the fires. The town government should do the same by ensuring that fewer students, fewer families and fewer residents are impacted by home-stealing fires in the future.