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November 22, 2017

The irritating mystery of a Philly politician's oft-triggered fire alarm

In South Philly, loud alarm riles a concerned neighbor

Earlier this week, a South Philly neighborhood beef of sorts made its way to Reddit, and considering Thanksgiving Eve is often devoid of tangible news, I’d like to share it with you today.

It involves the state senator who took over for Vince Fumo, the weather, fire safety and loud noises.

I’ll let Redditer “torribles” take it from here (and will rely on the Reddit thread as “torribles” did not respond to an email seeking a conversation.)

The title of the thread: “Senator Larry Farnese (D-1st)'s fire alarm goes off every time it rains.”

Here’s more:

… Whenever it rains his alarm goes off and most of the 1800 block of Broad St. can hear it. I'm staying at my partner's place, decided to call emergency services, and apparently it goes off every time it rains. The fire department said they've been out here a hundred times. What can I do to help make this less bad?

Among the suggestions received: gather signatures and go to the media.

Some good insight came from a Redditor who identified himself as a firefighter with the all-caps caveat that he does not speak for the department itself. Here’s what he or she wrote:

That's not particularly unusual. I'm a firefighter, and when it rains it triggers a lot of alarms. I should say instead "a lot of alarms trigger when it rains." Not every storm, no rhyme nor reason for this system goes off vs that system doesn't - next rain it might be reversed. It's not like we can say "Oh, it just started raining, we're going to 1234 Elm St in 5 minutes."

If it is as consistent as you say, I'd think there's maybe a leak that is shorting out the system. Other possible causes can be due to conditions (barometric pressure, humidity, etc.) affecting one or more sensors. Perhaps temperature/humidity combo is allowing condensate to short, or a micro crack in a circuit board to close...or any of 1000 other variables.

Have you tried talking to the office manager about this, and its effect on the neighborhood? There's not a lot PFD can do about it unless it activates so often that it affects the ability to respond elsewhere. That's something like going off every hour, not once every few days. Even then we'll "refer" the property/system to L&I; they have enforcement authority, not PFD.

We can only force the issue if an emergently dangerous condition exists, like a large apartment building has no functioning system and the building owner refuses to repair it or work with us to otherwise comply with the fire code.

The story was interesting enough for us to reach out to the Fire Department and Farnese’s office to see what exactly is happening. While there's not much research linking rain and false alarms, humidity is often a culprit.

Capt. William Dixon said the department has responded to just three fire alarm-related calls to Farnese’s office at 1802 S. Broad St. thus far in 2017. (Two of the calls were on August 23 and the other was this past Sunday. There was rain on each date.)

Jonathan Rowan, a spokesman to whom Farnese directed questions, confirmed the alarm has sounded inexplicably – and potentially because of rain – three times. 

The most recent was Sunday, which happened to be a rainy morning.

“It was going off when I got here,” Rowan explained of Sunday’s predicament, noting that another call was made from the dance studio upstairs, with whom Farnese shares a landlord. “We’ve talked to the landlord who got in touch with the fire-alarm company. They came out and couldn’t figure it out.”

After Sunday’s incident, they’re awaiting the return of the fire alarm experts to take another look.

None of this is to say the alarm hasn’t gone off more often than thrice. If firefighters have responded to the location hundreds of times, well, there's no formal record of that.

Told of the Reddit thread, Rowan noted that they didn’t field a single in-person or phone complaint from neighbors about the mysterious alarm, but vowed to keep us in the loop should they find answers.

Stay tuned.