NH city to review fire codes following massive building fire

Chief Steve Achilles said a sprinkler system would have saved the building

By Jeff McMenemy
Portsmouth Herald

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — If the State Street Saloon building had a sprinkler system, it would probably be standing today, Fire Chief Steve Achilles told the City Council Monday night.

Achilles comments came a week after a fire that exceeded five alarms - and needed 40 other departments to help fight - destroyed the State Street Saloon building and an adjacent building that housed the pub's dining room and apartments.

Achilles told the council that he is working with Deputy City Manager Nancy Colbert Puff and representatives of the city's inspections department to make recommendations on how city building and fire codes might be changed.

"This fire and recent incidents in the downtown make us reflect on what are the most appropriate codes," Achilles said during a presentation to councilors about the fire.

"The reason why we enforce the codes is so that at the end of the day the public isn't at any (risk of) harm," Achilles said.

Several city councilors and Mayor Jack Blalock praised Achilles and firefighters for their response to the fire.

City Councilor Eric Spear referenced the lack of a sprinkler system in the State Street Saloon building and said "what might be good for other parts of New Hampshire, might not be good for Portsmouth."

A business owner who decides not to sprinkle their building "are not only putting their tenants at risk, but the firefighters are put at risk and the surrounding buildings are also put at risk," Spear said.

"I think there is room to have the conversation about changing the requirements," Spear said.

Before Achilles' presentation, Deputy Department of Public Works Director Brian Goetz told city councilors that at the height of the fire, firefighters were dumping 10,000 gallons of water a minute on the fire and about one million gallons were used to extinguish the fire overall.

Achilles thanked the City Council for the city's investment in the downtown water infrastructure.

"I'd hate to guess what would have happened if we were impeded by our ability to pump water," Achilles said.

The fire chief also thanked the public for their support of city firefighters, as well as the Police Department's response to the fire that night, and their continued work on the investigation.

The Fire Department's cost of responding to the fire is about $30,000, Achilles said, and added "that does not account for the free work we got from the other 40 communities."

The department also lost about $7,000 in equipment when the building collapsed, he said.

"We've had three five-alarm fires in the last 10 years. This exceeded that," Achilles said. "I'm glad it wasn't a larger block, I'm glad it wasn't a larger city area."

He called the effort to determine the cause of the fire "still an active investigation."

Following his presentation, Achilles told the Portsmouth Herald that the investigation into the cause is proceeding well.

Fire officials continue to work with Portsmouth police and the state fire marshal's office to determine the cause, Achilles said.

Achilles understands that "a lot of people want to know what's happening," in terms of the cause of the blaze, "but we also want to do it right."

"I've given the direction that I don't want a quick knee-jerk reaction," Achilles said.

He stressed that what investigators decide could have an impact on "whether it's a prevention action or holding somebody accountable action."

"We want to get it right," he said.

In terms of requiring restaurants to use sprinkler systems, Portsmouth's ordinances are based on state fire code, Achilles said.

The state code requirements are based on the type of building, what it's used for, the number of seats, and the number of people who visit the establishment, he said.

The state code didn't require the State Street Salon building to be sprinkled, Achilles said, and added he doesn't know if the city could adopt codes that are "more restrictive" than the state code.

But Achilles acknowledged he would "like to see more of" the city's downtown builders using sprinkler systems, "understanding it is a hardship to spend that much money."

But he stressed that no one has died in a fire where there's been a "properly working sprinkler system."

He also praised his firefighters "for putting themselves in harm's way and putting their lives on the line for the people of Portsmouth."

"I was humbled and extremely glad and thankful that we didn't lose anybody," Achilles said. "There were times when it was extremely precarious."

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