Firefighters, Council at Odds Over Lock Boxes
Fed up with trying to track down business owners to unlock doors while responding to emergency calls, local fire officials are asking that owners place lock boxes at their businesses for off-hours access.
The officials—Chad Hurka, president of the South Baldwin Volunteer Fire Company; Jim Barbour, assistant chief of the Option Independent Fire Company; Bill Connors, deputy chief of Baldwin Independent Fire Company No. 1; and Kenneth Guerra, Baldwin's emergency management coordinator, appeared before the Baldwin Borough Council on Tuesday night to ask for the council's help in mandating cooperation.
But council members are hesitant to force business owners' hands.
Council member Michael Stelmasczyk, for example, said that he fears a potential lawsuit from a business owner possibly claiming that a lock box would violate his or her Fourth Amendment rights—protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
A lock box, known popularly as the brand name "KNOX BOX," would allow firefighters and other emergency workers access to keys or remote openings to places that are otherwise locked. The idea behind lock boxes is to allow quick access to fires and other emergency situations while also causing as little damage as possible to private property.
"The No. 1 reason is safety," Hurka said. "In order for us to efficiently get into a building, it's just quicker to unlock a key door rather than bash it down.
"And also, maybe there's a child on the other side of the door (as in an apartments complex situation). They don't know how to unlock 'cause they're so young. Maybe their parents are incapacitated. We don't wanna force that door open if there's a child on the other side of it."
Hurka went on to say that lock boxes would financially benefit business owners.
"I don't how much it costs to get your door replaced," he said, "but I'm sure that, if you were a business owner, you'd rather have us unlock a key door and just walk in, especially if nothing's wrong.
"There could be several scenarios where we might assume that something might be wrong behind that door, but it turns out it's just nothing at all. But we've broken your door for nothing.
"If there's no keyholder immediately available, we're gonna bust down that door because we don't know if there's a fire growing behind there or not."
Hurka also said, in trying to cool Fourth Amendment concerns, that many lock boxes have the ability to trace who has access to them and who has used that access.
"No personal firefighter or anybody else would have a key directly in their possession," Hurka said. "They will all be stored in the Sentralok system. It must be opened with the correct authority."
But Councilman Ed Moeller said that he prefers that business owners willfully participate in a lock boxes program rather than be forced into compliance. Moeller suggested that Hurka, Barbour, Connors and Guerra make the same presentation that they were making to the council to local business owners.
"See what businesses are willing to turn around and do that without it being mandatory," Moeller said. "The more you get those people volunteering into it, it's a snowball effect. To turn around and just all of a sudden say, 'This is the way it's going to be,' you're just ramming your head against a wall."
Barbour and Guerra said that a council interaction with the owners, though, would carry more weight.
"If you're not gonna enforce it," Guerra said to council members, "whatever we say means nothing."
Community Day Public Reactions Meeting
The meeting will be held in the municipal building along Churchview Avenue.
"Community Day was (once) an event," Moeller said. "We've lost that a bit.
"The idea is not to bash anybody (at this meeting); it's to improve it."
Mayor Alexander R. Bennett Jr. said that he would like to see local fire companies more prominently featured during Community Day.
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