Officials declare ’emergency’ over Boyle jail’s fire alarm system

Published 11:31 am Monday, January 15, 2018

System was ‘obsolete’ when installed 20 years ago; ‘fire watch’ patrols needed during installation of replacement

The Boyle County Detention Center’s fire alarm system was already three years obsolete when it was installed in 1998. It’s had issues through the years, but now, it’s malfunctioning and an impending jail inspection from the state means something has to be done, jail Captain Chad Holderman warned during a meeting of the Boyle-Mercer Joint Jail Committee on Friday.

Ben Kleppinger/
Boyle County Detention Center Captain Chad Holderman explains issues with the jail’s fire alarm system to members of the Joint Jail Committee Friday.

After hearing the facts about the alarm system, the committee decided the situation was an emergency. It voted to approve spending at least $35,814 out of the jail’s savings account to purchase and install a new fire alarm system, contingent on the Boyle County Fiscal Court authorizing the same action at a special called meeting planned for Wednesday.

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According to the alarm company, Vulcan, the new system is a “20-day install,” Holderman said, meaning the jail will have to be without a permanent fire alarm system for that time.

Instead, the jail will have deputies working extra time or will hire temporary workers to patrol the jail on “fire watch,” according to officials. Jailer Barry Harmon said the jail can also purchase battery-powered smoke detectors to spread around the jail, and inmates may be able to do “smoke checks;” Chief Deputy Jailer Brian Wofford said the smoke evacuation system can still be triggered manually if necessary.

The current system

Holderman said the jail’s existing system runs off of Windows 98, a system based on text-based operating system MS-DOS.

Vulcan, the company that maintains the system for the jail, has to use “a dinosaur of a laptop” just to communicate with the system and “translate” information for newer computers, he said.

The system keeps setting alarms off “for no reason,” Holderman said. Vulcan investigated and found that at least one pull station on the system isn’t functioning and there’s a ground fault somewhere — they haven’t been able to find it — that’s “grounding out the system” and may be causing the false alarms.

With the state coming to inspect the jail on Jan. 27, Holderman asked Vulcan what could be done to repair the system.

One possibility he was given was a “$1,000 Band-Aid” — Vulcan would shut down the system, which would allow it to locate the ground fault and make repairs. However, because of the age of the system, Vulcan told Holderman there is a probability that the system won’t come back online after the repairs.

The other option is purchase and installation of a new fire alarm panel and new devices to work with the panel, which comes with a price tag of $35,814 — though it’s possible additional costs could be discovered during the installation.

Committee reacts

Ben Kleppinger/
Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney asks a question about the Boyle County Detention Center’s fire alarm system.

“That scares the hell out of me,” said Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney, referring to the possibility of the jail being without a fire alarm system.

“… I don’t think that’s a tenable situation for us to be in.”

Boyle County Treasurer Mary Conley noted the $35,000 price range is above the $20,000 threshold for requiring public agencies to ask for bid prices.

McKinney said he’s certain the situation qualifies as an emergency, which allows government agencies to take action without bidding when “health, life or property” is placed in danger.

“It truly is a life-and-death situation — that’s just my thinking on it,” McKinney said. “You all know how much I hate to spend money, but I’m going to tell you, $35,000 for human is life is (acceptable).”

Jailer Harmon and Mercer County Attorney Ted Dean, both members of the Joint Jail Committee, agreed with McKinney that the system needed to be replaced.

Dean asked that the minutes of the meeting reflect all of the details on why the situation qualifies as an emergency.

Conley suggested the jail look into hiring temporary workers to take on the “fire watch” shifts so that the extra work doesn’t stress the existing jail staff to the point that people begin quitting. Holderman said he believes it will require two extra people per shift to ensure the jail is fully protected.

In order to begin the installation process, the expenditure must be approved by the Boyle County Fiscal Court. McKinney said he plans to hold a special called meeting on Wednesday in order to accomplish that. While Boyle and Mercer counties share the cost of running the jail, the expenditures are actually made by Boyle County, which means Mercer County Fiscal Court will not need to hold a parallel special called meeting, McKinney and Dean said. Instead, Mercer County Fiscal Court can address the matter at its next regular meeting on Jan. 23. Harmon is expected to attend that meeting and answer any questions.

Officials said it won’t be possible to get the new alarm system installed before the state inspection this month. But the state should be OK with completing all of the inspection except on the fire system, then returning to assess the fire system once the upgrade is complete, they said.

Friday’s Joint Jail Committee meeting was lightly attended — Boyle County Attorney Lynne Dean was unable to attend and Mercer County Judge-Executive Milward Dedman had to leave early for funeral, leaving the minimum for a quorum of three. Dean was the only Mercer representative left for a vote on the matter.

“We’re probably not the first facility that’s had to do this when we weren’t planning on it,” Dean said. “I think we muddle through as best we can and we count on our employees to be diligent and at least it’s better to do it today (with an inmate population of) 260 than it would have been to do it seven months ago at 400.”