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Planning board recommends proposed lock-box law

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POTSDAM - Planning officials have recommended the village pass a law to require all businesses and apartment complexes to install a lock-box that would give firefighters access to the building in the event of an emergency.

When firefighters don’t have key access to a building and if no one is present to open the door, they must then force their way in. Chief Timothy Jerome said that in some instances the the damage firefighters cause getting into a locked structure exceeds the cost of the fire damage. . “If there’s a fire (and we don’t have a key), we have to smash our way in,” Mr. Jerome said.

Planning board member and firefighter Jim Corbett told of a recent episode in which Potsdam firefighters responded to a fire alarm at a business on Market Street and after waiting 30 minutes to try to access the buildin, they broke down a door to get inside. Firefighters then discovered leaking water from a second floor apartment had set off the fire alarm. If they’d had a key to the building, they could have prevented damaging the door and further water damage from occurring.

Other times firefighers break down doors to respond to what turns out to be nothing more than a false alarm.

“You see smoke and you break down a thousand dollar door, and it turns out to be a pipe bomb (that has caused the smoke),” Mr. Jerome said.

An inability to access a burning structure can also pose a more significant threat to any persons, animals or valuable items inside.

“It’s too difficult to play the waiting game,” Mr. Jerome said.

Under the current system, firefighters have a large Medeco lock-box on a fire engine that contains keys to a number of village businesses. To access that lock-box, a firefighter must punch in their custom code, and an information system records who has taken out the key and the time at which the key was taken out and returned. Mr. Corbett said there is only one master key, and it cannot be duplicated, making it virtually impossible for anyone to access that key-box without the department’s knowledge.

But the current system is far from perfect. Mr. Corbett said the lock-box is incomplete and cumbersome with so many keys to manage.

The lock-box also takes up valuable space on the fire engine, Mr. Jerome said. “It’s gotten to be too much. It takes up too much room on the truck,” he said.

The smallest Medeco lock-boxes run from about $250 to $300, and will contain keys to enter all units of a building. Apartment complexes and other structures with many units may need to invest in one of the larger, more expensive lock-boxes.

The only way to access those lock-boxes are with the master key kept on the fire truck, Mr. Corbett said.

Under the proposed law, those who do not purchase and install the lock-box would be fined $250 per month, which is the approximate cost of a small Medeco lock-box. If one purchased a lock-box, the fine for that month would be waived, Mr. Corbett said.

SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University have installed the lock-boxes on all campus structures, and the village of Canton has a similar ordinance in effect. The proposed law would not apply to residential homes, however, some residents choose to purchase and install the lock-boxes to ensure firefighters can access their homes when they are away.

The board will vote on the proposed resolution at its March 18 meeting.

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