State could be responsible after investigators find no smoke alarms at site of fatal Md. fire

Because the fire that killed two people last week took place at a historical home owned by a government agency, the state could face legal repercussions


Mary Grace Keller
Carroll County Times, Westminster, Md.

After a house burned in Sykesville on Nov. 7, killing two people, investigators determined there were no smoke alarms in the historical residence — and it’s possible the state could be found responsible for the devices not being installed.

A man and a woman were found dead after the state-owned home caught fire in the 900 block of Raincliffe Road, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. The victims of the fire have yet to be identified by the fire marshal’s office, and the fire’s cause remains under investigation.

Two were killed in a fire at a historical home in Sykesville, Maryland on Nov. 7. Investigators say no smoke detectors were found among the ruins of the building. (Photo/Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department Facebook)
Two were killed in a fire at a historical home in Sykesville, Maryland on Nov. 7. Investigators say no smoke detectors were found among the ruins of the building. (Photo/Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department Facebook)

Investigators from the fire marshal’s office did not find smoke alarms in the ruins of the home, according to spokesperson Emily Witty. Under Maryland law, the landlord is responsible for installing smoke alarms and tenants must inform the landlord, in writing, if alarms no longer function, according to Witty.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources owns the historic Raincliffe property, which is part of DNR’s Resident Curatorship Program, according to DNR spokesperson Gregg Bortz.

“Part of our investigation is to determine if over the 20 years that these tenants stayed at this residence — were they ever provided smoke alarms?” Witty said. “If they were and simply did not maintain them, then the landlord, who in this case is the Department of Natural Resources, would not be at fault.”

However, Witty said the investigation is in early stages and the fire marshal is not currently considering criminal charges.

If DNR were to repair the property without installing smoke alarms, the fire marshal could issue a smoke alarm installation order, Witty said. DNR would then have five calendar days to install the devices, she said.

The fire marshal’s office is reviewing the residents’ lease agreement with DNR and historical documents "and the nuances of them, including replacing and repairing the home with historically accurate materials, to determine what [that] means in regards to smoke alarms being mounted to walls or other structures within the home,” Witty said.

Research at the University of Maryland, College Park has shown that installing smoke detectors can nearly double the chance of surviving a fire.

The death rate was 0.62 per 100 reported fires in one- and two-family dwellings with smoke alarms in the U.S. between 2003 and 2006, according to James Milke, a University of Maryland professor and chair of its department of fire protection engineering. In the same type of homes without smoke alarms, the death rate was 1.27 per 100 fires, Milke said.

The death rate was 0.33 for apartments with smoke alarms and 0.56 for apartments without them, according to Milke, who helped author a 2010 report on the performance of smoke detectors and sprinklers in residential and health-care settings.

Most American homes have smoke detectors, Milke said. In one analysis of 378,000 fire incidents between 2003 and 2006, 96% of homes had at least one smoke alarm, Milke’s report states.

“I think the general notion I know is that the building owner is responsible for the presence of the smoke detector," he said.

After a fire, it’s rare for a structure to be so damaged that nothing but ash is left, Milke said, so firefighters usually find remnants of smoke detectors if they were installed. Smoke detectors might fall off walls in a fire, but the signs are usually still there, he said.

“You’d see that something was there at one time and because the rest of the wall is going to be severely charred where the detector was,” Milke said.

The plastic housing of a smoke detector may become a “molten mass,” but rarely would it be destroyed so completely that only ash would remain, he said.

At the Raincliffe property, investigators interviewed people who had been in the home previously about whether smoke detectors were present, Witty wrote in an email Tuesday.

“Because of the extent of the damage in a fire we don’t just rely on visually seeing smoke alarms,” she wrote.

Investigators interviewed a family member of the victims who visited the home regularly, Witty said, and they confirmed they never saw smoke alarms inside the home.

“This interview, in combination with no observed smoke alarms on scene, makes our investigators confident the home was without these devices,” Witty wrote.

Generally speaking, Milke said, smoke detector enforcement occurs when a new home is sold or new tenants move into a rented dwelling.

“But for somebody that’s in the same home for years there wouldn’t be any inspection to see is a smoke detector there," he said.

Bortz said DNR’s curatorship program "offers lifetime residency of a state-owned historic property, in exchange for the curator being responsible for restoration and all maintenance and upkeep,” though he did not directly answer the question of whether the curator of a home in the program would be held responsible for installing smoke detectors.

Bortz did not respond to a request for additional comment.

template of a lease agreement found on DNR’s website states the tenant is responsible for maintaining smoke detectors:

“All building systems (plumbing, heating, air conditioning, electrical, smoke detectors, fire suppression, septic [including outdoor septic tanks/systems], security alarm systems and other building systems) shall be kept operable and in good repair and shall comply with applicable state and local building and sanitary codes. The Tenant shall take every measure to prevent water leaks and resultant damage, electrical shocks or failure, and other similar damage that may result from the failure of a building system,” the agreement reads.

Nelson Bolton and his wife Leigh became curators of the mansion known on the property, the Raincliffe Venture Manor, in 1984, according to Carroll County Times archives. It is unknown whether the lease agreement on DNR’s website today is the same agreement the Boltons would have signed decades ago.

However, the Public Safety Article of Maryland Code states landlords/property owners are responsible for the “installation, repair, maintenance, and replacement of smoke alarms ... .” The code also states the testing of smoke alarms is the responsibility of the tenant and the tenant shall notify the landlord if the smoke alarm is not functioning properly.

“I think smoke detectors do a tremendous amount of good, for sure," Milke said. "And for a fairly small investment, getting that much of a difference in fatality rate would seem to be, it’d be about one of the best investments you could ever make.”

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©2019 the Carroll County Times (Westminster, Md.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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