Flame retardant: SRO trumps most mansions in smoke safety
With more than 150 solar and hot water heating panels on the roof and a high-tech security system featuring live video feeds of all public spaces, the formerly homeless and low-income residents of The Crossings, the new SRO, or "single room occupancy," will experience plenty of impressive residential gadgets. But the most significant technology at the 60-unit complex at the corner of Fourth Street and Preston Avenue will give those living there one priceless advantage over even most mansion dwellers: they're less likely to experience a fatal fire at home, thanks to a multi-faceted fire-suppression system and the use of smoke-savvy photoelectric smoke detectors.
"We use them because they eliminate nuisance alarms," says Skip Hannan of Mechums River Security Concepts, the company that installed the fire protection system at the $6.6-million-dollar development.
Avoiding false alarms is only one benefit of photoelectrics. As longtime readers of the Hook know, there are two types of smoke detectors, and they're not created equal. Ionization detectors, the kind found in the vast majority of American homes, use a small amount of radioactive material to detect the large particles released by live flames. They're prone to false alarms, leading residents to disable them. By contrast, photoelectric detectors use a beam of light that triggers the alarm when small particles of smoke interrupt the beam.
Back in 2009, the Hook, with the assistance of the Albemarle Fire Department and Jay Fleming, a Boston fire official and the country's leading proponent of photoelectric technology, conducted a smoke detector test that supported Fleming's long-held contention: ionization detectors don't detect smoke.
"They're fire detectors," Fleming explained, after they failed to sound in our test, even when smoke filled the room to the point that oxygen masks had to be donned.
Although Fleming's data has convinced state lawmakers around the country to support legislation requiring photoelectric-only detectors– Vermont and Massachusetts were early adopters– and the International Association of Fire Fighters changed its position in summer 2010 to endorse photoelectrics, Charlottesville-area fire officials say they remain unconvinced. Both Charlottesville and Albemarle County fire departments issue combination detectors, which contain both components.
"We believe that is the best practice," says Albemarle Chief Dan Eggleston, echoing the opinion of Charlottesville Chief Charles Werner. Both men cite the endorsement of combination detectors by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Fire Protection Association.
While Fleming asserts that an increased risk of false alarms with combination detectors remains, Charlottesville's Fire Chief Charles Werner says the city-issued combination detectors, given out through the free smoke detector program, come equipped with a 10-year nonremovable battery, hopefully solving that problem. Fleming, however, has pointed out that a resident who becomes truly irritated by false alarms could still easily rip it from the wall or ceiling.
Fortunately for any heavy smokers at the Crossings, the facility is also equipped with heat detectors, a sprinkler system, and automatic fire extinguishers over every stove. Given that residents will be permitted to smoke in their studios– and that dropped cigarettes are a leading cause of smoldering fires– the full fire suppression system should ensure that if a fire ever does break out, it won't spread far.
The fire systems aren't the only cutting-edge technology at the complex constructed by Martin Horn, as dozens of solar and hot water panels cover the roof, something that will offset the energy expense and help defray the estimated $300,000 cost of the innovative heating system.
Thirty of the 60 units are filled by formerly homeless individuals, who were selected based on their vulnerability, with factors including age and illness moving them up the application list. No one convicted of a violent crime is permitted at the facility, and overnight guests are also prohibited from the premises. These residents will pay a minimum of $50 a month rent. The other 30 low income residents will pay market value– $550-600 a month, which includes all utilities except cable television and phone.
A grand opening for the Crossings will be held on Tuesday, April 10.