Dover fire code causing friction with Code Purple

DOVER — For churches and other organizations participating in Code Purple’s mission, their goals are clear: Clothe, house, feed and otherwise provide haven for homeless people during below-freezing weather.

However, the city of Dover’s fire marshal has an equally clear goal: Make sure “rooming houses” in the city limits adhere to the fire code in the interest of public safety.

Sometimes, well-meaning goals clash.

Rebecca Martin, director of Kent County Code Purple, said the organization received an email last year around August from Dover Fire Marshal Jason Osika. It alerted them that several of their facilities were violating the fire code — specifically operating shelters without the required fire suppression sprinkler systems installed.

Ms. Martin says they’ve been embroiled in negotiations with the city ever since.

“They are asking that sprinkler systems be in all the churches we use, and it’s just not going to happen,” Ms. Martin said. “A lot of the churches in Dover are older and don’t have the systems and the churches just can’t afford the expense of installing them.”

Despite the warning, Ms. Martin said Code Purple went about it’s mission anyway last year. However, they were forced to house fewer people than usual because they’d also been told to reduce their populations per square foot.

“We opened last year anyway, took care of people and just did what was right in our hearts,” said Ms. Martin. “No one came in to check on us or anything, so we just proceeded.

“But, our numbers were down because we were only allowed to have a certain amount of people per sanctuary. Presbyterian Church was only allowed to house 17, when the year before we could have had 22, Mt. Carmel Church was brought all the way down to 3 people from 15 the year before and on and on. It was very frustrating.”

Ms. Martin said Code Purple approached city council for a hearing and had a meeting with Council President Timothy Slavin. But efforts so far to address the situation hadn’t reached a resolution.

Earlier this month, in an effort to strike a compromise, the city’s planning director Dave Hugg prepared a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the city and Code Purple to consider.

“This is one of those situations where logic would say, just exempt them from the rule. But the fire code is so specific that it makes that tricky,” said Mr. Hugg.

“Some jurisdictions like Smyrna and Milford just sort of look the other way without really asking questions,” he added, “but Dover is unique in that it has its own fire marshal. That makes it hard for us to not follow fire code when it’s also our city code.”

The agreement mapped out in the MOU waives the sprinkler system regulation for 5 previously used, “grandfathered in” churches, but still holds to the code for churches not listed. Although Mr. Hugg is hopeful that the MOU will satisfy both parties, Ms. Martin said it contains clauses to which Code Purple can’t agree.
“People’s Church of Dover isn’t on their list and they have a huge facility downstairs with a commercial kitchen and bowling alley, but they don’t have a sprinkler system,” she said. “If we don’t use People’s Church this year, we’re not going to have enough room to house people. It’s that simple.”

Ms. Martin also doesn’t like the clause in the MOU concerning the meals Code Purple serves in their facilities.

“We serve dinners and breakfasts in our emergency shelters, they’re brought in by community members — even the mayor has brought in some dinners — we’re entirely community funded and supplied,” she said.

“They’re trying to add the rule too that if meals are to be served, the state public health department has to come in and approve them. It’s just another issue for us.

“The churches feel that because they’re giving the meals for free in their own sanctuary that it’s far fetched to require the public health department to come though and approve everything every time.”

Ms. Martin said that Code Purple has never had a major issues or disaster with any of their sanctuaries where people needed to be evacuated. She also notes that the majority of safety precautions requested by the city are already observed.

“We already have volunteers on site that stay awake and ensure everyone is safe,” she said. “We also alert the city staff, mayor, emergency services, fire marshal, state and city police every time we open and we provide all the current contact information — that stuff is routine already.

“As long as there are safe exits, fire extinguishers and the churches abide by all the other rules, we don’t understand why sprinklers would be absolutely needed. The churches without sprinkler system already host gatherings of their own like dinners, plays or meetings where they may have over 50 people and that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

“We could understand if we were running a full-time shelter, but we’re not. We’re an emergency shelter that’s only open from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. when temperatures reach 32 or below.”

Wanting to support Code Purple’s mission while at the same time observing appropriate safety measures, Mr. Slavin said the city can’t willfully ignore building conditions.

“We want to make this work for everyone, but the safety of citizens, whether they’re homeless or not, is our first concern,” he said. “I’m not going to allow homeless people to be considered second-class citizens and put them in unsafe conditions. We think it’s a great service that Code Purple provides, but we can’t just warehouse people.”

Mr. Slavin and Mr. Hugg both believe the city is close to coming to an equitable agreement with Code Purple that both keeps citizens safe and provides for the needy.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for a compromise because the city can’t knowingly have someone in a building that doesn’t meet fire code and have an incident happen — and at the same time the city doesn’t want people being stuck out in the cold,” said Mr. Hugg.

Ms. Martin is less optimistic about the outcome at present because she believes that the draft MOU is still far too restrictive and without the freedom to set up temporary homeless shelters at locations without sprinkler systems, she doesn’t know how Code Purple can continue its mission in Dover.

“It’s frustrating and our churches are very upset, but I hope we come to some kind of agreement,” she said. “Sooner than later I hope because the clock is ticking and it’s going to start getting cold outside again before we know it.”

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