A kitchen fire that started on a stovetop at a Lebanon child care center late Wednesday night was quickly extinguished by a sprinkler system that city officials required to be installed throughout the building when it was constructed about a year and a half ago. Without sprinklers, the River Valley Club’s FitKids Childcare center likely would have suffered major damage, or been a total loss, according to Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos. Instead, he said, the blaze only resulted in light, cosmetic damage and caused no injuries. An automatic fire alarm called firefighters to the Lafayette Street building in the Centerra office park shortly before 11 p.m. on Wednesday. By the time first responders were alerted, the fire already had been going for about a minute, Christopoulos said on Thursday. Heat from the blaze triggered sprinklers three minutes later, and firefighters arrived on-scene 12 minutes after the alarm struck, he said. “To put it to scale, a fire doubles in size every 60 to 75 seconds,” Christopoulos said in a phone interview. “So every minute that fire burns, it gets bigger.”
Rather than finding a fully engulfed building, he said, first responders instead encountered light smoke and a burned stove top extinguished by sprinklers. The building wasn’t occupied when the fire broke out. An investigation later determined that a maintenance worker had inadvertently turned the electric stove’s burners on while picking himself up from a fall, Christopoulos said. The stove then lit a camera bag left on top, he said.
The child care center was closed on Thursday, as teachers and River Valley Club employees emptied classrooms of furniture, carpets and toys. Some items were laid out in the parking lot to dry, while others were discarded due to smoke damage. “We’re obviously taking 100 percent care in how we’re handling this situation,” said River Valley Club CEO Jennifer Poljacik, who said FitKids would be open Friday.
Poljacik directed further questions to River Valley Club owner Joe Asch, who declined to comment. Asch objected to the city’s mandate that he install sprinklers in the building after construction was first approved in July 2015. At the request of the Fire Department, the Lebanon Planning Board required that Asch install sprinklers because of the young age of children enrolled in the daycare program. Members of the Planning Board also worried about the length of time it would take for firefighters to respond to an emergency. The National Fire Protection Association recommends a four-minute response time, but Lebanon fire officials estimated it would take seven minutes to get to Lafayette Street from their downtown station.
Asch later appealed the Planning Board’s decision, arguing the sprinkler requirement was overly onerous and would cost an additional $75,000 in construction costs, but opted not to go to court when his appeal to the board failed. The overall budget for the building, designed for 188 children, was estimated at $2 million.
Each classroom in the 9,400-square-foot building would have two doors to the outside and adjacent rooms, he told the board. Asch also cited the International Building Code, which states a child care building is allowed to hold up to 100 children under the age of 2½ without requiring a sprinkler, as long as the children were on the ground floor and had doors to the outside. In a Feb. 2016 column in the Valley News, Asch said the building was designed with safety in mind and would use modern materials.
“It is almost impossible for them to catch fire,” he wrote of new buildings. “The national building codes about sprinklers reflect that.”
Ken Morley, a former Planning Board member, said he still stands by the decision to mandate sprinklers, adding they’re installed in many new, public buildings.
“Well, now, isn’t that interesting,” Morley said when informed of the fire on Thursday. “We felt at the time that because children were included and there were so many different alcoves and rooms in the structure, it would be more prudent for sprinklers to be installed.”
Christopoulos also said he’s happy to have recommended the sprinklers, adding they’ve been proven to save lives and property. If the sprinklers didn’t go off at the FitKids building, he said, a “fair portion” would have been destroyed before firefighters arrived.
“I think (the fire) certainly validated that property loss, in this instance, is economically minimal compared to what it could have been without sprinklers,” he said.