International Fire Code could be key to lock box issue in Baldwin

| Wednesday, July 18, 2012, 1:03 p.m.

Firefighters said they are needed for safety.

Borough council members, though, have concerns that requiring all commercial buildings in the borough to install lock boxes to provide quicker access for emergency personnel to the structures could lead to lawsuits.

Adoption of the International Fire Code, which Baldwin Borough passed in 2000, could satisfy both means, borough Manager John Barrett told council Tuesday night.

The International Fire Code states that fire officials can require lock boxes to be installed "where he deems appropriate," Barrett said. Therefore, Baldwin firefighters could require the lock boxes be installed without a specific ordinance from borough council.

How this could play out will be addressed at an emergency management meeting later this month, when representatives from all four borough fire companies, police and emergency medical services gather, Barrett said.

The main reason firefighters are seeking the installation of the lock boxes, specifically the brand Knox Box, is for resident and firefighter safety, Chad Hurka, president of South Baldwin Volunteer Fire Company, told council last week.

"It's just quicker for us to unlock a door, rather than bash it down," he said.

Also, doors in some buildings are steel and hard for firefighters to break through. Gaining access can take time when a key would quickly get them access, Hurka said.

"What's the life of one firefighter worth? What's the life of one resident stuck in that building?" Baldwin emergency management coordinator Ken Guerra asked council.

How it works is: a box is secured to commercial buildings and locked inside is a key to the facility. Firefighters, or emergency personnel, have one master key that accesses the lock boxes in the community. That key, Hurka said, typically is locked in another secured box on a firetruck or at a borough hub. When the key is needed, Allegheny County dispatchers can signal the box to unlock and provide access to the master key.

"There's going to be a way to trace who has that key in their hand," Hurka said.

Another benefit is financial. Instead of breaking through a door to get inside of a structure where the call simply could have been a false alarm, the key grants clean access to the building with no damage to the structure, Hurka said.

Option Independent Fire Company assistant Chief Jim Barbour told council of a recent fire at Dave's Terrace Bakery in Brownsville Plaza where firefighters had to break down a glass door at a nearby doctor's office to gain entry.

Firefighters, then, had to be stationed at the door of the doctor's office, which tied up manpower because there was medication inside. There also was no record for how to contact anyone in charge at the doctor's office and emergency crews took more than an hour to find a phone number, Barbour said.

Council members had concerns about the adoption of a local ordinance - despite other municipalities in the region having similar codes - after reading about a Newark, Ohio, businessman's challenge of a city requirement for key boxes, saying it violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

"Do you want to deal with the legal costs of it?" Baldwin Councilman Ed Moeller asked.

Baldwin firefighters had asked for lock boxes to be required in all commercial buildings, including apartment complexes, school and churches, with the exception of facilities that are open and staffed 24 hours a day.

The Residences of South Hills apartment complex, formerly Leland Point, has been one place firefighters have said they would like to have the lock boxes installed.

Paul Kiebler, president of Apollo Property Management that manages The Residences of South Hills, said his company has installed lock boxes in other apartment complexes they oversee across the country where borough regulations require them. In gated communities, even, they have made it so the gates automatically open when emergency vehicles arrive, he said.

"If the borough thinks it's needed, we would be willing to participate," Kiebler said.

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