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Middletown apartment building fined $2,000 for fire alarm issues; Judy says authorities don't want 'disaster on our hands'

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 11/8/19

A maximum fine of $1,000 each was imposed upon Woodlayne Court apartments in Middletown after District Judge David Judy found the complex guilty of two citations issued by the borough for having a …

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Middletown apartment building fined $2,000 for fire alarm issues; Judy says authorities don't want 'disaster on our hands'

Woodlayne Court is seen in this 2017 file photo.
Woodlayne Court is seen in this 2017 file photo.
staff photo by dan miller
Posted

A maximum fine of $1,000 each was imposed upon Woodlayne Court apartments in Middletown after District Judge David Judy found the complex guilty of two citations issued by the borough for having a faulty fire alarm system.

“Get this whole thing on track so we don’t have a disaster on our hands,” Judy told Woodlayne Court property manager Wendy Maldonado at a hearing Thursday during which Middletown Volunteer Fire Chief Kenton Whitebread Jr. and borough Zoning & Codes Officer Al Geosits detailed a history of problems with the complex’s fire alarm system.

Many issues have been resolved, but what remains, Whitebread said, is that the fire alarm is supposed to automatically trigger a monitoring company to notify 911. It does not, he said, and that’s something the owners have been aware of for several months.

“We have no comment,” Maldonado said when reached by phone by the Press & Journal on Friday.

Located at Wilson and Wood streets, Woodlayne Court has 48 apartment units in four stories and is home to an estimated 150 people.

Geosits had twice cited Middletown Associates, the owners of Woodlayne Court, for a summary violation for having a faulty fire alarm system. The first citation filed with Judy was dated Aug. 19. Geosits filed the second on Oct. 24.

The total penalty for each of the two citations comes to $1,097.25 when various mandated court costs are added to the fine for violating the borough ordinance, according to online court records.

Middletown Associates has up to 30 days to appeal to Dauphin County Court.

Geosits issued the citations after receiving referrals from Whitebread, following firefighters being dispatched to Woodlayne Court on Aug. 11, and again Oct. 21.

A component of the fire alarm system had failed and had not been replaced. The system had been out of service for “an extended period of time,” according to the citation Geosits filed on Aug. 19.

Two months later, Geosits filed the October citation, saying that the fire alarm system at Woodlayne Court had again failed and had been out of service “for days.”

According to Whitebread, a small fire broke out in the bathroom of an apartment on the third floor in August. However, the fire alarm system in Woodlayne Court only went off on the first floor.

The fire in the third-floor apartment was extinguished by the sprinkler system. However, five adults and four children had to be evacuated because of smoke and water damage.

Whitebread said it was left up to the fire company to call the Red Cross to find housing for those who were displaced, because Woodlayne Court maintenance refused to come to the scene until the next morning.

Whitebread testified he returned to Woodlayne Court the next day to find “numerous code violations in common areas” of the complex, including exit signs not being illuminated, flammable material stacked next to the building, an exit door with screws drilled into it so it could not be opened, and electrical receptacles in the laundry room that did not prevent someone from being shocked in case of water getting into the outlets.

Whitebread acknowledged that the violations have since been corrected by Woodlayne Court — except for problems with the fire alarm system which the chief said persist to this day.

According to Whitebread, when the fire alarm goes off, it is supposed to trigger a monitoring company to notify 911. But that has not been the case since at least Aug. 11, Whitebread said.

On Oct. 21, a resident of Woodlayne Court called 911 after   the fire alarm had been going off for 10 to 15 minutes due to smoke on the fourth floor, but firefighters had still not arrived, Whitebread said.

The resident didn’t know he had to call 911, because Woodlayne Court management failed to notify its tenants that the fire alarm system was not automatically alerting 911 as it is supposed to, Whitebread said.

According to Whitebread, it wasn’t until Geosits posted information at Woodlayne Court about the citations that the residents learned that they had to call 911 themselves — even though management had been aware of this since August, the chief testified.

Geosits during the hearing referred to “repeated failures of the fire alarm system” at Woodlayne Court having occurred five times in the last year and a half.

Maldonado during her testimony claimed that Woodlayne Court had been working “faithfully and feverishly” to address the issues with the fire alarm system.

“We’ve been on this since the day the incident occurred,” she said. “It’s not like we are not addressing it. We got on this as soon as possible. It’s not like we are not complying.”

Maldonado suggested that the fault for it taking so long to correct the problem lay with companies that Woodlayne Court contracts with to inspect and maintain the fire alarm system.

She said a third party had inspected the fire alarm system four times a year.

“It’s not being inspected,” Geosits contended. “That’s why we are here.”

Maldonado contended that the fire alarm system is now working properly, including automatically dispatching to 911.

Whitebread disagreed, and repeatedly during his testimony referred to “trouble mode” lights on the fire alarm system being on.

These lights indicate there is a problem with the system and as long as the lights are on, it is not working properly, according to Whitebread.

He testified that as of the last time he checked — an hour before the hearing — the trouble mode lights were still on at the fire alarm system at Woodlayne Court.

Geosits and Whitebread both said that the fire alarm system at Woodlayne Court is outdated and should be replaced.

If Woodlayne Court doesn’t want to spend the money to put in a new system, it needs to be more “proactive” and do a better job maintaining the system it has, Geosits said.

“Woodlayne Court does not want to put a new system in, but they are not the ones coming in in the middle of the night to pull bodies out because the system is not working,” Whitebread said.

“The borough has put on a pretty compelling case,” Judy said in agreeing to impose the maximum fines of $1,000 each.

To Maldonado, Judy acknowledged the efforts Woodlayne Court had undertaken to correct the problems, but added, “It doesn’t appear to be enough at this point … it just isn’t enough.”

A Dauphin County Housing Authority official confirmed that Woodlayne Court participates in the Section 8 program, through which rental assistance vouchers are provided to low-income individuals and families.

Faye Gannaway, listed on the authority website as supervisor of the Section 8 program, did not respond to a request for information from the Press & Journal regarding authority inspection requirements for landlords that participate in Section 8.