Alarm, firefighters save house of traveling family

While a St. Johns Road family was away in Europe, an electrical fire smoldered beneath the floorboards of their family room.

But what could have spelled disaster was more of an inconvenience, thanks to a hard-wired alarm system, a tenacious Fire Department and a local electrician.

“Just before shift change — quarter till 8 in the morning, 7:45 — we got dispatched to St. Johns Road,” said fire Capt. David McDevitt, who was the shift captain at the time, recalling the incident last Thursday.

Firefighters arrived and walked around the house, checking doors and windows for a way in.

“There was nobody inside so they popped the window,” said Assistant Chief Kevin Tappe. “They didn’t break any glass. They popped the lock on the window. There was very little damage.”

“There was a slight haze in there, so I said, Boy, this is not normal,” Capt. McDevitt said.

He elevated the call’s status, sending the second fire engine to the scene more quickly.

Two engines are dispatched to every alarm when there’s no additional information available. One comes from headquarters on Catoonah Street and one from station two in Ridgebury. The nearest engine is sent “lights and sirens,” but since there are so many “false” alarms, the farther-away engine travels with normal traffic unless there turns out to be an actual emergency.

“We went ahead and investigated, and we found right away, in their little den area, there was some smoke pushing from the doorway,” Capt. McDevitt said.

Finding the source of a fire with a house full of smoke can be a major challenge, but in this case it was pretty straightforward. There was smoke coming from a floorboard in the next room.

“It was pushing smoke — it was near ignition. You could definitely tell the smoke was heavier in the first floor than it was in the second floor,” Capt. McDevitt said.

They cut open the floor with a Sawzall and pulled out insulation to find the source of the smoke — an electrical wire that was arcing across a floor joist. It had apparently been smoldering for some time.

“The joist was completely charred,” Capt. McDevitt said. “If that alarm system was not there, we would have been going to a full structure fire.”

The smoldering was extinguished relatively easily with water, but when firefighters went to shut off power to the circuit, they found the heating system was on the same line.

“We’ve now shut down power to the house, it’s cold out, which means the pipes are going to freeze,” Assistant Chief Tappe said, and the owners were nowhere to be found.

“None of the neighbors knew how to get in touch with the people,” Assistant Chief Tappe said. The neighbors knew the homeowners were in Europe, and the contact number they had given the Fire Department was their home phone number.

They looked inside for clues.

“There was a stack of mail on the kitchen counter. … We happened to find a piece of paper from this gentleman’s work,” which had a cell phone number and email address.

“We sent him an email from my cell phone,” Assistant Chief Tappe said. Then they tried the cell phone number.

“Lo and behold, we got ahold of him on his cell phone in Germany. … We’re saying, look we’re in your kitchen, there’s been a fire in your house. …

“We asked him, Is there anyone we can call? He said no, his son lives in New York state — but his son is in Germany with him.

“We asked his permission if we could get an electrician here to isolate that circuit and that way we would have electricity. …

“He approved that and even offered to give the electrician his credit card number over the phone, which wasn’t required.

“We called Miller Electric right here in town, who responded immediately. We were able to turn the power back on so they had lights and heat,” Assistant Chief Tappe said.

All in all, the damage was minimal, he said: “Slight structural damage to the floor joists in the area of the family room … smell of smoke, but no real smoke damage.”

If there had been no alarm system, though, the slow smoldering could have continued until “breaking out” into a visible fire, in the floorboards and walls, Assistant Chief Tappe said.

“We wouldn’t have gotten a call until it was seen by a neighbor and it was much larger, of course.

“It’s just another reason to have an alarm system,” he said.

Fire Chief Heather Burford said the St. Johns Road case was an example of how “these guys go above and beyond. It’s really not just that you go in and you find the fire and you walk away. It’s truly more about taking care of your neighbor as opposed to just another homeowner.

“You look at it in terms of, this is what I would want done if I were away.”

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