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Home » Investigators: Fire Alarm Problem Flagged a Month before Jacob’s Pillow Blaze

Investigators: Fire Alarm Problem Flagged a Month before Jacob’s Pillow Blaze


Investigators: Fire alarm problem flagged a month before Jacob’s Pillow blaze

By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle

On Oct. 31, 2020, a local security firm monitoring the sprinkler and fire alarm system at Jacob’s Pillow called an employee at the dance center after the alarm system at the Doris Duke Theatre had not self-tested or received signals the day before.

The employee told Lee Audio N’ Security, which monitors fire protection systems at the Pillow, to “ignore the fault,” essentially severing a key communications network between the two locations.

Less than three weeks later, on Nov. 17, 2020, a blaze destroyed the theater. No one was injured in the early morning fire at the Pillow, one of the dance world’s most celebrated institution

The loss of communication with the alarm company slowed the response to the fire, as did the failure of a water pump that prevented the sprinklers from operating. And both of those factors allowed the blaze to burn with a fury in the key early moments, leading to devastation.

New details about the fire, the cause of which has been deemed unknown, are revealed in two reports obtained by The Eagle through a public records request.

The alarm problem wasn’t the only thing that went wrong.

As firefighters learned upon arrival, the main water pump that feeds the sprinkler system didn’t work, even though that system appears to have been functional.

The Nov. 18 report by Massachusetts State Police Trooper Daniel Quigley said the sprinkler system had been serviced, tested and inspected July 13 by Westfield-based Hampshire Fire Protection with a “positive result.”

But, during that inspection, the pump was found clogged with weeds and algae, according to Quigley’s Jan. 19 follow-up report. It is unknown whether it had been cleared of the debris before the fire.

Data from the pump system’s digital recorder logged the activation of a “jockey pump” when a sprinkler head triggered it at 5:02 a.m. on the morning of the fire. It worked for 32 minutes, but it was the subsequent failure of the main pump that hindered the entire system.

Pillow officials said Tuesday that further internal investigation confirmed this. That pump, which serves the entire campus, has been fixed since then and is tested regularly.

They also said that they have improved on staff communications regarding fire alarms, and have installed new technology to replace old connections that led to frequent false alarms.

These false alarms and connectivity problems were “believed to be water affecting the underground lines,” Quigley wrote.

In an attempt to find the cause of the fire, the report, which was redacted to conceal individuals’ identities, says investigators also interviewed four performers who had been working at the Pillow as part of a residency and had used the theater the night before the fire. Two said they are smokers but did not smoke inside or outside the theater. They left the theater about 11 p.m.

“They remember smoking while walking back to the dormitory from the theatre,” Quigley wrote. “Both deny smoking outside near the theatre.”

In a Jan. 19 follow-up report by Quigley, he writes that the dancers noticed nothing out of the ordinary in terms of smells, sights or sounds, and left the theater “in normal operating condition.”

On the morning of the blaze, the first firefighters arrived at 7 a.m., as the fire was well underway, and crews discovered that the private hydrant near the theater was not working, and neither was the pump. Crews began shuttling water.

In February, State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey ruled the cause of the blaze “undetermined,” and said the sources of ignition either were electronic equipment inside a door, or “smoking materials.”

The destruction was such that investigators could not pinpoint the exact origin of the fire with certainty.

Crushed by the pandemic and the fire, the Pillow plans to further reinforce its fire safety systems and rebuild the theater. And in March, it announced that it would hold its dance festival outdoors this summer.

Nicole Tomasofsky, the Pillow’s director of marketing and communications, said in an email that Pillow employees are now instructed to ensure that monitoring signals are restored by confirming with the security company. Alarms now are tested twice a day by the alarm company, and Pillow staff inspect panels twice a day.

“Additionally, all panels have new and redundant cellular connections so that we are not reliant on underground lines that are susceptible to environmental conditions [which led to a high amount of false alarms in the past],” Tomasofsky wrote.

She also said that further investigation into the sprinkler system after that preliminary report revealed that it was not “offline,” but hampered by the inoperable water pump. Why the pump failed remains unclear, she noted, but the pump has been fixed and regularly is tested.

The Pillow is working to design a new pump system for the campus, she added.

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