Fire drill promise falls short: CHA didn't follow through, Boynton Terrace residents say

Fire drill promise falls short: CHA didn't follow through, Boynton Terrace residents say

March 24th, 2014 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Farris Fuller sits outside Boynton Terrace apartments on Sunday. Fuller lives on the top floor and has medical problems that hinder his walking abilities.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

After a fire forced the evacuation of nearly 250 elderly and disabled renters from Patten Towers last May, the Chattanooga Housing Authority promised to have fire drills in all the high-rise buildings that it manages.

But that hasn't happened.

Nearly a year and another downtown high-rise fire later, residents at Boynton Terrace Apartments still have no idea what they will do if flames break out in the building. That was underscored last week at nearby Jaycee Towers, where 150 residents were evacuated because of an electrical fire. Both Patten and Jaycee towers are privately owned.

Boynton, with 250 units in three buildings that are seven and eight stories high, hasn't had a fire drill in a decade, residents say.

Capt. David Brooks with the Chattanooga Fire Department said having the drill is as simple as calling the fire marshal's office, and that CHA should be having drills at least once a year.

Boynton resident council President Bennie Haynes said the fire department answers calls from Boynton about 10 times a month.

Fire drills were conducted at the Gateway and Mary Walker apartments in October for fire safety month, said Mike Sabin, CHA's director of low-income development.

But CHA officials can't explain why the drills haven't been completed at Boynton Terrace.

Executive Director Betsy McCright said in the weeks after the Patten Towers fire that she would focus on having fire drills and updating CHA's emergency plan.

"I want to develop a real plan," McCright said in June 2013, "[in case] something like this happened at one of our sites."

McCright was out of town last week and unavailable for comment on this story.

But Sabin said the fire safety systems on all CHA properties have been checked, and he expects Boynton will begin conducting regular fire drills "in the near future."

As for Dogwood Apartments, CHA's other high-rise building, Chattanooga Fire Department representatives met with residents in 2013 to explain how to operate the fire extinguishers in each apartment and discussed a plan in case of fire.

Now Dogwood Apartments, which was purchased last year and is the CHA's most-occupied property, has a "shelter-in-place" plan but not a mass evacuation plan, Sabin said.

As for getting emergency plans in practice, Sabin said CHA is working as quickly as possible.

"As a point of fact, when I received the call that a fire was occurring at Jaycee Towers ... I happened to be at another site conducting a safety inspection utilizing a checklist developed after the Patten Towers incident," he said. "Progress on site safety and emergency preparedness has been ongoing throughout the past year, and we are continuing to address fire safety."

Moses Freeman, City Council representative for downtown residents, said he was disappointed in CHA.

"I would have hoped they were doing fire drills," he said. "It would seem to me that any apartment complex like [Boynton] ought to have a fire drill, especially [a building] that involves seniors and people with disabilities who may have difficulty navigating stairs."

All four of CHA's high-rise sites house primarily seniors and the disabled.

Residents at Boynton say they requested a fire drill in 2013 following the fire at Patten Towers. CHA promised a drill and an evacuation plan for Boynton, but so far nothing has been communicated, said Haynes.

Haynes said fire safety will be at the top of the Boynton resident council agenda at its next meeting at 4 p.m. April 14. He plans to ask the site resident manager to either schedule a fire drill with the fire department or ask CHA officials to do it.

Having an emergency plan is considered especially critical for residents who might need help getting out of the building if the elevators are disabled. Douglas Corbin, 62, uses a wheelchair to get around after having a stroke.

"We need fire drills so we will know what is going to happen, " he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 757-6431.