Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Montgomery County allowed County agency-owned high-rise to operate without fire alarms for 2 months

The Montgomery County government and owner Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County allowed residents to occupy the 15-story Westwood Tower apartments for two months without an operating fire alarm system. County officials have now condemned the high-rise building at 5401 Westbard Avenue in Bethesda after an electrical fire brought the existing violations to light this past weekend, and further damaged the building's electrical systems. In lieu of a functioning fire alarm system, HOC had posted signs inside the tower instructing residents to "evacuate and call 911" in case of a fire. The signs did not advise how residents who might be asleep during a fire would be aware one had broken out, nor how their neighbors in the approximately 200 apartments would be notified on more than a dozen floors.

Sign posted inside Westwood Tower after the
building's fire alarm system went down on November 9, 2023;
it was never repaired, and the building was condemned after
a fire on January 6, 2024

After the fire alarm system broke down on November 9, 2023, the HOC stationed personnel in the building lobby to be on-duty in case of a fire. It was unclear how one person could physically cover 15 floors (not to mention without an elevator),and knock on hundreds of doors, in the few seconds that might be needed for all residents to safely evacuate. One resident reported that these employees were sometimes seen dozing off in the lobby. Residents report that the HOC never informed them of a timeline for restoration of the fire alarm system. "Fire officials have repeatedly been called to the building because of the lack of a fire alarm," one resident said, and that the building has been "cited repeatedly because of a lack of fire alarm."

Generator outside the building, which has
no power; residents have been relocated

The insanity of the idea of one person being able to function as a human fire alarm for a 15-story building became clear this past Saturday night, when a transformer blew inside the building. Several residents I spoke to reported that not only were there no fire alarms sounding, but the backup "human fire alarm" in the lobby did not contact any of them. They smelled and saw smoke, and self-evacuated, alerting other residents on their way out of the building. One resident who lives on a floor that did not initially have smoke only learned the building was on fire when a friend who lived on a smoke-filled floor called them to say there was a fire, and to get out. 

Residents report that they were left freezing in the building from 6:00 PM Saturday night, until the building was condemned and evacuated 24 hours later. Power in the building was limited, and there was no heat at all. Security functions to keep non-residents and potential criminals out of the building were inoperable.

To top it off, the HOC initially refused to provide alternative shelter to residents, advising them to instead make a claim on their own apartment insurance to cover the cost of hotel rooms. As the details began to reach the public a day later, Montgomery County agencies announced they were providing off-site shelter. The HOC said the residents were being moved to hotels in the area. Residents were told that they could be displaced from the building for as long as three weeks.

There is concern among residents, given the County's inaction regarding the fire alarm outage in the preceding weeks and the building's ownership being politically affliated with the elected officials who appoint and oversee them, that repairs will be allowed to drag on. Last night, two extremely loud generators roared outside the darkened apartment tower. There was no visible activity at the building. 

Residents of HOC properties have long pointed out issues regarding health and safety in their buildings. Those complaints were backed up by the findings of federal inspections, which found 75% of the units they inspected failed to meet federal standards. It now appears the agency was allowed to violate the County's fire code for two months, by operating a building without functioning smoke and fire alarms to alert occupants.

The HOC acquired the building several years ago with grand plans to construct more buildings and garages on the property. When those plans were stymied by protests that arose when the agency announced it intended to build a parking garage on top of the Moses African Cemetery at the rear of the property - where many of the graves were desecrated during the building's construction in the late 1960s, the HOC then attempted to sell it to a private developer. That sale was temporarily blocked by a Montgomery County court injunction, and the buyer backed out of the transaction. The dispute - that the HOC tried to sell the land with the cemetery without notifying the descendants of those interred there, in violation of Maryland law - will be ruled on by the Maryland Supreme Court later this year.

The County and the HOC are only fortunate that Saturday's fire was not more serious. This could have been a catastrophic disaster, had a fast-moving fire engulfed the building. Elected officials have yet to criticize the situation that existed at the property; in fact, the County Councilmember who represents the area has so far tweeted only praise for County agencies.

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