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Electrical upgrade OK'd following Chestnut Manor fire

AHA logo
Panels in the 57-year-old building 'dated.'
-- Jack Nagle 

The Arlington Housing Authority (AHA) in a special meeting Wednesday, Feb. 2, approved a buildingwide upgrade of electrical panels at Chestnut Manor, the scene of a deadly fire last month.

The Jan. 22 blaze, which started with an electric baseboard heater in the bedroom of a third-floor unit, resulted in injury to that resident, the death of 88-year-old neighbor Bridget Doyle, and displaced 21 other residents from 18 apartments on the first, second and third floors. Officials earlier reported 16 displaced.

Executive Director Jack Nagle called the existing electrical panels in the 57-year-old building “dated,” and urged the board to approve their replacement. “The insurance company [is] upgrading the electrical panels related to the fire.

“We’re going to try and get the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to help us pay for upgrading the electrical panels and other systems in the building at the same time.”

The DHCD is a state-level agency that provides funding to and oversight of housing authorities such as the AHA.

Nagle expressed confidence that the state would support the $409,000 project, and the board unanimously approved the motion to amend the budget to reflect this capital needs request.

Fire history at Chestnut Manor

Chestnut Manor is a seven-story, 100-unit housing complex for seniors and people with disabilities. It has been the scene of previous fires, including the 2008 death of Sophie Brady, who succumbed after the stove on which she was boiling water ignited her clothing.

Although the housing authority passed a nonsmoking policy in 2015, which banned smoking in the units and all common areas both inside and outside the property, a 2020 fire - also on the third floor - was traced to a discarded cigarette butt. Although there were no injuries, the building suffered water damage and its hot water tanks had to be replaced.

Since this past September, Chestnut Manor has been the scene of numerous Arlington Fire Department (AFD) alarm calls for “food on the stove.” The latest call was the evening of Thursday, Feb. 3, for “burned chicken, no fire” and prompted fire department command to request that the AHA “put a fob for the front door so the fire department can gain entry,” according to incident audio logs. A fob is a token or key card-type device with radio frequency identification. It can be coded for user access via a control panel system mounted on the building's exterior. They are the security and access technology for residents in AHA's apartment buildings. 

Nagle addressed the issue of emergency access to Chestnut Manor in an email with YourArlington, writing that “we confirmed with AFD that an additional fob has been made available to them in their box at Chestnut Manor.

Fire-safety training, equipment

Nagle wrote that “we have also scheduled training sessions with AFD to educate residents in fire safety and prevention practices” at the six main AHA properties of Chestnut Manor, Cusack Terrace, Drake Village (the cottages and the Hauser building), Winslow Towers and the Menotomy Manor family-housing complex in East Arlington. The AHA also owns and manages properties of what is called “scattered-site” housing at various locations throughout town.

In 2014, under the leadership of former director John Griffin, the AHA installed new sprinkler heads, smoke detectors and heat sensors in Chestnut Manor. Heat sensors are devices that can respond to a sudden and high change in room temperature. In 2018, the authority approved a fire alarm upgrade to the building. All these safety features were operational the night of the Jan. 22 fire, according to Fire Chief Kevin Kelley.

The State Police Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit report on the cause of the Chestnut Manor fire is pending public release.

Town, community relief response

Both town and outside agencies are supporting residents displaced by the fire, including Arlington’s Health and Human Services (HHS), the Council on Aging (CoA), Somerville Homeless Coalition, Minuteman Senior Services and the American Red Cross.

In a statement, HHS director Christine Bongiorno said that “helping residents impacted by the fire has been a community effort. We’re grateful for the support of everyone who has contributed.”

donation fund established by HHS and the CoA raised nearly $35,000 to support the 21 displaced residents who are temporarily living in local hotels.

Drake Cottages repairs, other business

The rest of the board meeting discussed repairs to bunching and fraying lobby carpeting in many of the nine cottages of Drake Villages, in Arlington Heights.

“The carpets being replaced are original [to] the building,” Nagle said. The development of the two-story buildings with seven one-bedroom units each, was completed in 1961.

Personnel moves, hiring

Since last April, the state housing agency has experienced significant personnel changes in the departments of maintenance, administration and resident services.

Property managers Janet Doyle and Lynne Sullivan switched roles, with Doyle now managing Winslow Towers and the Mystic Gardens properties, and Sullivan taking over as the family resident services role at Menotomy Manor.

“I am excited about the opportunities ahead and am focused on putting staff members in positions that best serve the residents of the AHA, as well as provide them the opportunity to grow professionally,” Nagle wrote.

More personnel changes include the newly created positions of assistant executive director and a family self-sufficiency coordinator.

In response to a question about extra support for Chestnut Manor residents to deal with their fire-related issues, Nagle wrote YourArlington that current Resident Services Coordinator Tricia Horgan and other housing authority staff provide support where needed, but that “if we receive the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for a part-time resident services coordinator, my current plan is to have one person focus on senior public housing and the other focus on family public housing residents. This will allow them to support and address the unique needs of each population.”

The Select Board endorsed Arlington’s ARPA framework including the authority’s $184,000 request for increased resident suppport services.

The next public meeting of the Arlington Housing Authority is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Jan. 24, 2022: Authority discussed space-heater use days before deadly fire 

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Melanie Gilbert was published Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

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