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Following String Of Electrical Fires, Pittsfield Fire Chief Issues Warnings

A man in uniform stands in a garage filled with fire vehicles
Josh Landes
Pittsfield Fire Chief Tom Sammons

The fire chief of Pittsfield, Massachusetts held a press conference today following a series of electrical fires. 

In a span of nine days around New Year’s, the Pittsfield Fire Department responded to five fires in the Berkshire County city of around 43,000 – four of which Chief Tom Sammons attributed to electrical issues.

“No one was hurt, thankfully, and they were during the day. If those fires had occurred at night it might have been different.”

Of the five fires, one saw a garage burn down and two others affected family homes.

“There was three families displaced from a four-family house, there was a family displaced from a single-family house. They were room and contents fires. In a room and contents fire, the room is involved and then there’s smoke damage throughout the rest of the building as well as water damage below. And then we’ve got to rip and tear and make sure that we get the fires extinguished.”

Sammons says that there’s usually an uptick in electrical fires in the winter, and said that overloaded power strips were often the culprit in the five fires in question.

“Never plug an extension cord into a power strip. Make sure that it’s rated for what you’re using. Never cover an extension cord with a carpet and never have an extension cord as permanent wiring. Never tack them to baseboard, never tack them to the floor. An extension cord is designed as temporary wiring.”

He told city residents that devices that use a lot of power like refrigerators, microwaves, and air conditioners should always be plugged directly into wall outlets. The chief singled out heating devices.

“Space heaters need to have a three foot area all the way around it, and they always have to be on level ground. They are designed with automatic shutoffs, but again, mechanical failures happen. Never leave a space heater unattended. If you’re leaving a room, unplug it, and plug it back in when you are in the room using it.”

Sammons underscored the importance of renters insurance – noting that not all of the city residents affected by the string of fires had protected their belongings – and warned against using stoves or ovens to heat houses.

“If you constantly have a circuit breaker that’s popping, it means that whatever it is is requiring too much electricity.”

The chief said that Pittsfield’s aging housing stock – with more than 40% of the city’s homes built before 1939 – also plays a role in the spate of electrical fires.

“That was the way that houses were designed. Now the electrical codes are different. The wiring inspector is a great resource, but there’s got to be outlets every so many feet now. Back when a lot of these homes were built, that wasn’t the case.”

Sammons also drew attention to the importance of operational smoke detectors.

“A couple of cases there were – smoke detectors were there, and when tested, they weren’t going off when we were there fighting the fire, and we tested them afterwards and they didn’t sound. That’s a critical message. You’ve got your kids, you’re sleeping in an apartment or a house – that’s critical stuff.”

For more information on fire safety and how to receive free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, Pittsfield residents can call the fire department at 413 448 9764.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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