Penn. borough reacts to loss of historic property

Saturday, April 1, 2006

BELLEFONTE, Penn.--Not wanting a repeat of the February blaze that destroyed the historic Bush House here, fire and elected officials have created a group to improve fire protection in this 6,000-resident town.
"I believe that only three of our buildings downtown are sprinklered," said Tim Knisley, Bellefonte Fire Chief. "With the Bush House, we were able to protect neighboring buildings. Our concern is that we could lose a whole block of buildings in our downtown, where older buildings are attached."
Within an hour of the firefighters' arrival, 80 percent of the 68,000 square-foot Bush House collapsed into the basement of the building. The Bush House was home to a small hotel and several businesses, but offered very little in the way of fire protection. It had a few sprinkler heads near a grand staircase and a fire alarm that was not connected to the fire department.
Bellefonte has close to 100 other historic buildings, all constructed decades before the codes required sprinkler systems or fire alarms. Most still have inadequate fire protection.
Knisley believes sprinklers are the only way to really protect the buildings. An important first step, however, will be to get adequate alarms into the buildings.
Knisley and borough manager Ralph Stewart culled together a group including a structural engineer, fire protection engineer, a code specialist from the state, George Church, owner of Rowe Sprinkler in Middleburg, Penn., fire alarm contractor Larry Miles of Vigilant Security in State College, Penn., and Chip Aiken, chair of the Bellefonte safety committee.
Called the Bellefonte Preservation and Fire Protection Task Force. The group met March 8 for a walking tour of downtown and to set some priorities. Its first order of business will be to bring a "fire protection consultant to do a one-day seminar for [the task force, residents and business owners] to talk about the tasks ahead and get everyone on the same page."
Knisely hopes to bring the consultant in within a month.