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Potsdam Planning Board recommends lock-box law

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POTSDAM — Planning officials have recommended that the village pass a law to require all businesses and apartment complexes to install a lock box that would give firefighters access to the building in an emergency.

Potsdam Fire Chief Timothy L. Jerome said firefighters sometimes cause more damage than the fire itself when they have to enter a locked structure. If firefighters do not have a key and there is no one to let them in, “we have to smash our way in,” Mr. Jerome said.

Village Planning Board member and Potsdam firefighter James F. Corbett recounted a recent incident in which firefighters responding to an alarm at a Market Street business had to break down a door to get inside, after spending 30 minutes waiting to access the building. When they got inside, firefighters discovered that water leaking from a second-floor apartment had set off the fire alarm.

Other times, firefighters break down doors to respond to what turns out to be a false alarm.

“You see smoke and you break down a thousand-dollar door, and it turns out to be a pipe bomb” causing the smoke, Mr. Jerome said.

Firefighters’ inability to access a burning structure can pose a significant threat to any people, animals or valuable items inside. “It’s too difficult to play the waiting game,” Mr. Jerome said.

Under the current system, firefighters have a large Medeco lock box on a fire engine that contains keys to a number of village businesses. To access the keys, a firefighter must punch in a custom code, and the system records who has taken out a key and when it is returned. Mr. Corbett said there is only one master key, and it cannot be duplicated, making it virtually impossible for anyone to access the box without the department’s knowledge.

But the system is far from perfect. Mr. Corbett said the lock box is incomplete and cumbersome, with so many keys to manage.

The box also takes up valuable space on the engine, Mr. Jerome said. “It’s gotten to be too much. It takes up too much room on the truck,” he said.

The smallest Medeco lock boxes are about $250 to $300, and will contain keys to enter all units of a building. Apartment complexes and other structures with many units may need to invest in one of the larger, more expensive lock boxes.

The only way to access the lock boxes is with the master key kept on the firetruck, Mr. Corbett said.

Under the proposed law, those who do not purchase and install a lock box would be fined $250 per month, which is the approximate cost of a small Medeco lock box.

SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University have installed lock boxes on all campus structures, and the village of Canton has a similar ordinance in effect.

The proposed law would not apply to residential homes, but some residents choose to install the lock boxes to ensure firefighters can access their homes when they are away.

The village Board of Trustees will vote on the proposal at its March 18 meeting.

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