A fire at Marks Jewelers, 817 Mass., last week was successfully extinguished thanks to an alarm, but debate over which downtown stores should have sprinklers could start again.
The jewelry store, which doesn’t have a sprinkler system, suffered $5,000 in damage after a malfunctioning piece of equipment sparked a small fire July 7. The building is the 14th oldest jewelry store in the United States. Its alarm system alerted firefighters, who quickly extinguished the blaze.
Lawrence Fire Marshal Rich Barr estimates that 47 of 161 buildings downtown have sprinkler systems.
Because of the age of many downtown structures and their proximity to one another, a single fire could potentially wipe out centuries of history and one of Lawrence’s main tourist destinations.
“Can you imagine what it’d be like if you had a downtown without a block? Charred ruins?” said Bob Schumm, owner of Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse and two other Massachusetts Street buildings. “It’d be devastating to that whole district and surrounding neighborhoods, and our tourism would certainly take a hit.”
The possibility of a domino-effect fire also concerns city officials.
In 2006 city commissioners had authorized a program that paid 75 percent of the cost to install sprinkler systems in downtown buildings. That decision came after a fire destroyed 10 century-old buildings in downtown Fort Scott.
“A fire that’s in an older building that is adjacent to other older buildings is a concern,” said Lawrence Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard. “Certainly the sprinkler system helps to slow the pace of the fire or extinguish it entirely.”
Stoddard said several Lawrence businesses took part in the program, before it was cut two years later because of budgetary concerns.
“We had a number of businesses that had expressed interest, and even when the funds had run out we had a waiting list,” Stoddard said.
The incident at Fort Scott showed that alarms and fire sprinklers are a business’ first line of defense in battling a fire, but installation of those items can cost upward of $20,000 depending on the size of the building.
“That’s something that the average person just can’t afford,” Schumm said. “They recognize the need for it, but you just can’t come up with the money to do that.”
Schumm said that, for him, protecting downtown from a potential disaster was well worth the cost.
“My three buildings are sprinkled, and either building on each side of me is sprinkled,” he said. “It’s just a great relief to be able to think that more than likely, most likely, it’s never going to burn down.”