Smoke detectors inside the Orrington home destroyed by a fatal fire Saturday were useless during the early morning blaze, according to Maine State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas.
Thomas said investigators found that no smoke detector in the house had batteries. Despite the negligence implicit in not maintaining functional smoke detectors, Thomas said no one can be held criminally liable for the fire.
That’s because the state rules governing building safety require that single-family homes have smoke detectors but doesn’t require that they be in use. The rules come from National Fire Protection Agency’s “Life Safety Code,” which the state has adopted as the authority on fire safety.
“In the state of Maine, we have no control over single-family residences,” Thomas said Tuesday. “It’s an eminent domain issue. [The code] says they have to be there, but there’s nothing saying they have to work.”
In contrast, the Life Safety Code dictates that multifamily residences such as apartment buildings have functioning, maintained smoke alarms in each unit. That rule is serious enough, Thomas said, that a tenant in a multifamily home can be charged with criminal mischief for tampering with a smoke detector.
The fire, reported at 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, killed Ben Johnson III and his three children, 9-year-old Ben, 8-year-old Leslie and 4-year-old Ryan. It also sent Johnson’s wife, Christine, to the hospital, where she is being treated for smoke inhalation.
Contrary to what authorities reported, Ben Johnson III’s father said that his son was awoken by a smoke and carbon monoxide detector the family had just purchased that evening.
The issue of dead or missing batteries in smoke detectors is partially addressed by construction standards adopted in the early ’90s that require new buildings to have smoke detectors hardwired to the structure’s electric wiring.
That requirement caused a significant drop in the average number of fatal fires per year in Maine, from an average of 40 to 50 in the late ’ 90s to an average of about 17 per year in the past decade, according to state figures.
But older buildings — such as the Orrington home, built in 1965 — are grandfathered from compliance to new building codes. Orrington Code Enforcement Officer Dick Harriman said that back then, smoke detectors weren’t even required.
“It was new technology, just beginning to come out,” he said. “They were optional.”
Thomas said the lack of a legal enforcement mechanism for keeping working smoke detectors is why fire education is so important.
“This could have been avoided,” he said. “This is why we always tell people the same three, simple things: Have smoke detectors, have them operational and have a plan to get out of the house.”
Harriman said the lack of smoke detectors make an already tragic situation even sadder.
“You only get one chance to make a mistake like that,” he said. “It’s like falling overboard without a life jacket on. You don’t get to make that mistake twice.”
Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, could not be reached for comment Tuesday concerning whether his committee would consider changing the smoke detector rules.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.