City Desk

Harvard Hall Residents: Fire Alarms Didn’t Work

After 2 a.m. this morning, firefighters responded to a fire in the seven-story Harvard Hall apartments in Adams Morgan. The fire was reportedly contained to a single unit, in which a woman was badly burned.

While the fire's effects were thankfully contained, other Harvard Hall residents are raising questions about the building's safety. Several residents are reporting on an online message board that fire alarms didn't wake them.

Wrote one on a WJLA-TV forum:

I live in the building and perhaps the scariest thing about last night is that the fire alarms throughout the building did not go off. none of them. despite the fact that the 4th, 5th and 6th floor hallways were filled with smoke people were still evacuating over an hour later (many with small children) because they were sound asleep and didn't know that there were 8 firetrucks outside and dozens of firefighters in and around the building.

Said another:

I only woke up because we live near the stairwell and heard commotion. Very scary.

And another:

I'd also like to add that as I walked out my door into a hallway of smoke, there were no sprinklers, and Borger does not equip its rental units with fire extinguisers. I don't know the city requirements for apartment buildings – but everywhere else I've lived this has not been a problem.

And another:

...we are extremely upset that the building's "fire alarm" did nothing to wake us up, even though we live on the floor of the fire. I overheard many other residents say exactly the same thing. We shouldn't have to rely on the good will of our neighbors in order to be aware of an emergency and avoid catastrophe.

The building is operated by Borger Management; a call to Borger this afternoon was not immediately returned.

UPDATE, 3:25 P.M.: Check out blog post from { 2 bars + 3 stars }, who commented below, for some outstanding scene:

I open the front door of our apartment. The hallway is filled with smoke but no alarm can be heard. I call 9-1-1. We quickly dress, grab our cat by the scruff of his neck, and run through the smoke to the stairwell and out the buidling. In the lobby, a badly burned woman stands in obvious shock.

UPDATE, 6:35 P.M.: Ted Loza, chief of staff to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, relates a conversation he had today with a Harvard Hall resident, who said fire officials were in the building today to check the alarm system; they found the system to be working properly, the tenant told him.

Still no response from Borger.

UPDATE, 1:45 P.M., 2/24: All indications, as noted in the comments below, are that the alarm was never activated by pulling a wall switch. A meeting has been scheduled this week for Harvard Hall residents, where management, Graham, Fire Chief Dennis Rubin, and DCRA chief Linda Argo will attend.

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  • 2b3s

    Thanks for reporting. It was quite surreal -- a burning building and no audible alarms, no flashing lights, nothing but your wits to guide you.

  • 6th Floor tenant

    We were in our bedroom when we noticed that a fire truck alarm was getting closer and not further away. Then we noticed that glass was breaking directly beneath us. We also grabbed our cats and bolted into a hallway completely filled with smoke. (I come from Chicago where every building has an exterior fire escape, so running into the smoke to get away from it was a bizarre experience.)

    Not only were the alarms not going off, but our individual smoke detectors didn't go off, despite our apartment being full of smoke. We tested it recently, it worked then. I don't understand how the only alarm I heard all night was coming from the elevator.

    Did the alarms not go off? Did someone elect to not turn them on? Either situation is upsetting. Of course the fire was contained, but 2 floors up we were coughing from fairly intense smoke, and had no information from the building, no alarm to let us know if we had waited too long. I called a friend/fellow tenant, who was completely asleep and had no idea that anything was happening.

    The only person who represents the building as a whole was Will, who works in the building, and who seems significantly more competent than all of the management, who was MIA and maybe had no clue that the whole building was up in smoke.

    This was an upsetting experience, clearly, and it makes me question the safety of living in this building.

  • Ach

    Thanks for reporting on this as well- it was surreal. If the reports are correct that the fire department arrived around 2:20am we didn't wake-up to an alarm until almost 3am. I've left a message with Borger voicing my concern about the fire alarms, and I hope that action is taken very quickly.

  • Concerned tenant

    Last week there was a small fire in my building, also operated by Borger in Adams Morgan, and I didn't hear any alarms either. My neighbors and I woke up to the smoke and general commotion after the fire department arrived. A disturbing trend...

  • Harvard Hall tenant

    Frightening. I woke to go to the bathroom, heard a woman scream, but could not make out what she was saying. I haerd another womans voice saying "they are on their way" and then heard sirens. At first I thought it might be an abuse issue and it might be the police, so I just happened to walk into my living room shere I heard an alarm in the distance (elevator) and smelled smoke. I am an aashmatic, and I dnon't need to spell out how frightenening it was for my husband who as sound asleep at the time to get dressed and run down several flights of stairs. Fortunately, as we were leaving our apartment we haerd firemen banging on doors, and telling people to take the stairs. While our fellow tenant is in our prayers, I thank God it wasn't any worse, it was a scary experience

  • Adams Morgan

    You know, with some of the older buildings, someone has to actually pull the fire alarm before it sounds. That doesn't explain smoke detectors not going off in individual units, but that could explain why no one heard a building-wide alarm.

  • Anonymous

    This was part of a note that we received from Borger today- this would have been nice to know beforehand:

    All residents should be aware that the building fire alarm operates by the pull stations located in the common area hallways, and that this alarm is separate from the smoke alarms in your individual apartments. In the event of a fire, you should locate the pull station nearest you and activate the building alarm. Please note that the building alarm is not connected to the fire department or emergency rescue, and in the event of a fire they must be contacted immediately by calling 911.

  • 7th Floor

    I live on the 7th floor of Harvard Hall. I only woke up last night because I heard people screaming down the hall and banging on doors. I opened my door to see a hallway filled with smoke, and no alarms were going off. I don't know what would have happened if my neighbors hadn't woken me up. I ran down the stairs, and passed firemen running up with hoses. It was a terrible nightmare.

  • 7th Floor

    I also live on the 7th floor. What I found most interesting was that they tested the fire alarms for HOURS today (between 10am and 5pm).

    If someone hadn't screamed "fire" I probably would have slept through the entire thing. I've been waiting for a piece of paper from the management company, but I'm guessing they are holding off on submitting it until it goes through legal.

  • First Floor Resident

    I live on the first floor on the same side of the building in which the fire happened. I didn't wake up until nearly 4:30 and that was only from the sound of debris which was thrown out of a window and sailed past my bedroom before crashing in the alley. I'm a fairly light sleeper. I don't recall anyone knocking on my door. I only found out what happened when I turned on the TV around 5:00 and saw the incident reported on the news. I realize (now) that I wasn't in any immediate
    danger, but it nevertheless would have been nice to know that the building was burning right above me. Were any of the manual fire alarm boxes in the hallways pulled?

  • Park East resident

    I assume poster #4 lives in my building, another Borger property two blocks from Harvard Hall. Last week, there was a fire in our trash chute, and the fire alarms did not go off. I woke up because of the sirens and found my apartment totally filled with smoke. There's a smoke detector in my living room, but it didn't go off (yet half the time I saute something on the stove, it does). But more alarming, the large bell-style alarms in the hall did not sound even though there was a ton of smoke there too.

    I've never had problems with Borger before, but I am furious about the way they handled this. There were no letters to residents after the fire except a stern note on the door to the trash chute, and they did nothing to help clear the smoky smell out of my apartment. After the Harvard Hall story, I'm seriously considering moving.

  • Resident

    I came home to find the note from Borger which basically said that if you want to hear any alarm, pull it yourself. I understand that these buildings are old, but that leaves me with a few other questions. Our building has a 24-hour attendant at the front desk, presumably for our safety--why did these employees not pull the fire alarm before they ran out of the building? If these employees did not know this, why not? Additionally, our property manager, Beth Reiber, was on the premises and I asked her personally what was wrong with the alarms, to which she replied, "I have no idea." Today, she is the one who issued the letter--why didn't she pull the alarm herself if she was here?

  • ?

    Way to pass the buck, Borger. Thanks for the note.

  • 6th Floor Tenant

    I have so much issue with the statement saying that tenants should have known to activate the alarm themselves, and that it is not an automatic alarm. I am fine, as a tenant, in taking some responsibility over the fact that I did not think to pull that alarm - I assumed, incorrectly, that the whole system was broken. But I think it is a poor business model and a poor ethical choice for Borger to get defensive and blame the tenants. Their business is in providing people with a home, which I would hope they would not take lightly. I would feel better today, all conditions remaining as they were last night, if Borger had publicly recognized that there are flaws in the system, and apologize for disrupting our sense of safety, instead of just pointing fingers at us. I now have little to not trust in them, and am looking for a new apartment.

  • Anonymous

    If Beth Reiber and other building staff members were there and knowingly and willfully did not pull the fire alarm, it sounds rather criminally negligent....Can someone say Class Action??

  • 6th Floor Tenant

    Also, can we all please note that the image on Borger's homepage is of a coffee table covered in decorative free standing candles?

    Tsk tsk, PR department.

  • slimsloslider

    i live on the 7th floor at harvard hall and i woke up at 230 last night b/c my girlfriend happened to be up taking care of our 3-week old daughter, who needed nursing. she smelled smoke, but the only real reason we knew to evacuate was because our neighbors were unselfish enough to think to bang on our door and scream "fire" on their way out. i woke up startled, pissed, confused. since we live on the top floor, i expected the worst. was the entire building ablaze? where was the fire? which was the best way out? had the alarm been raised, i would've had some sense of time, but like everyone else, i was in the dark. i was lucky enough to get out of the building on the early side of things, but i passed at least a half-dozen firemen on my way out, and at that point, no one was directing traffic. there was basically no leadership, and in an emergency situation like this, that is the most important thing. with at least 8 fire trucks showing up, would it have hurt to send one guy around to knock on doors or raise the alarm?

  • Anonymous

    I just wrote an e-mail to Jim Graham stating my concern about the DC fire codes- and asking them to be changed. Since according to the ABC 7 News report that was on the 6pm news- Harvard Hall was not in violation of any fire codes since buildings of a certain age are not required to follow the newer ones. I also requested that he send me the current fire codes since I had difficulty finding them on the internet.

    I can't imagine that Borger Management and the rest of the management companies in the city are willingly going to change how they do things unless the law forces them to. I encourage everyone to write to Jim Graham ( voicing your concern.

    It shouldn't cost too much to have a building system that is at least electronically connected to the fire department, and in addition I think it should be in the law that before signing a lease, landlords should be required to fully inform prospective tenants about the nature and function of the fire alarm system.

    I plan to continue to follow-up with Jim and perhaps this is an issue that the Harvard Hall Tenants Association could take up also.

  • 2B3S

    It's obvious from Reiber's finger-pointing memo that covering Borger's ass -- and not necessarily the welfare of HH residents -- is her primary concern at this point, less than 24 hours after a blaze that could've be catastrophic, had we not been so lucky.

    I think it's incumbent upon us residents to meet and organize if we want to live in a safer building. We once had a tenants' association.

    Anyone know if it's still alive?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the link- it seems to be alive. I just joined the Harvard Hall Google Group which can be accessed from the link you posted. There was a message posted today about the fire by the president of the association as well as messages from other residents.

  • Brian Vallelunga

    The association is still alive, but the site has not been updated in a long while. We're currently using the Google Group for communication.

    We've scheduled an all-building meeting for Wednesday night at 7:30pm (building lobby) to discuss the fire, Borger's response and what we can do going forward to improve the safety for all tenants.

    I encourage all residents to join the group and post their thoughts concerns on the list.

    Brian Vallelunga

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  • Argonne resident

    I live in the Argonne, another Borger property, and we had a fire there over Christmas. The smoke alarm in the hallway sounded like a slow clanging and many people did not know what the sound was. I was also infuriated that they only sent a letter weeks later to the residents saying that we should be careful not to leave things plugged in and turned on.

  • 6th Flr Resident

    I was wondering if anyone banged on doors on the 6th Fl. I woke up to a burning throat at 3am, went out to the living room and the space was a smoke fog. I did not hear anyone bang my door. My smoke alarm that they installed from a few months ago did not go off. In the living room, I could hear the elevator alarm faintly.

    I had been breathing the smoke for over an hour. When I went into the hallway for the stairs, it was still pitch quiet.

    The smoke alarms that they install in our apartments should work. Mine was useless.

  • Dorchester Resident

    I live in the Dorchester House, yet another Borger building. We had some false alarms over the summer - the bell is right outside my door and I could barely hear it. It was low in volume and only intermittently ringing. I would not have heard it in my bedroom, even if I was awake.

    I will be talking to my neighbors and writing letters - this is unacceptable!

  • another Harvard Hall resident

    When the alarms do go off in Harvard Hall they are REALLY loud, I don't think anyone could sleep through them.

    6th fl resident: I heard that fire fighters told some residents on your floor to stay put -- I'm assuming they didn't want them going into the worse smoke in the hall and passing where they were working on the 4th floor, but I really don't know. That would be a good question for the building meeting this week.

  • shocked

    Jesus, this is shocking. I'm going out to buy my own smoke detectors now, even though my management co just installed their own a year ago.

  • Another 6th Floor resident

    6th floor resident: No one knocked on our doors. I feel horrible that when I saw the smoke and raced from the building, I assumed everyone was out because the floor was deserted. And I, like many others, assumed the alarm system was broken because it was not ringing and thus did not pull it. I hope you are OK. I don't think the smoke should have to travel from the fire into our apartments before an alarm goes off- something should be blaring in the hall long before then!

    I wrote Jim Graham as well regarding the fire codes and Harvard Hall and particular- everyone who is able should contact him as well- it seems things only happen in DC after lots of people make a big fuss!

  • 6th Flr Resident

    Another 6th Floor resident: I know what you mean. When I stumbled out into the empty hallway towards the stairs, I assumed I was also the last person to know.

    It seems any of the ways to wake up residents to get themselves out were not in place! Harvard Hall desk person, other Harvard Hall staff, fire fighters not pulling alarm. Residents not knowing to pull alarm or thinking it was broken, apt. smoke alarms not working, elevator alarms not loud enough.

    Shouldn't there be BUILDING SMOKE ALARMS? So at the first sign of smoke in any shared hall, stair, elevator, or basement triggers the building fire alarm to go off, alerting everyone in the building at once.

    At present, if a fire occurs in a public building space and tenants are in their apts. asleep, no one knows to pull the alarm.

  • Jeff Simmermon

    This doesn't surprise me in the slightest. When I lived in Harvard Hall (from 2004 - 2007) my bathroom ceiling caved in, the basement flooded continually, and cockroaches constantly partied INSIDE my refrigerator.

    I was on the building council at that time (tip of the hat to Brian Vallelunga) and also dealt with Beth Reiber personally. Now that I work in PR, I really feel for her -- she's forced to represent a company that wouldn't call an ambulance when its own bulding collapsed. Which that one will - and soon, too.

  • Mariekel

    Beth Reiber's approach to this frightening event is not surprising, given Borger's less than sterling record of tenant care. But it is remarkably callous. Aside from placing the blame squarely on tenants, she, as Borger's manager for this building, has expressed not one ounce of concern for the welfare of tenants in the aftermath of the fire. No public statement of good wishes has even been extended to the tenant who is fighting for her life or to her family.

  • 7thFloorResident

    I live on the 7th floor. The alarms did not go off. They are really loud when they do. There was a false alarm back in summer of '07 and I jumped right out of bed. Funny it was at 2:30 in the morning too. For this real fire I was lucky enough to be awake and I heard a faint ringing of the West elevator alarm. I only heard it because I had just turned off the tv and had walked near my apartment door to the hall. I wouldn't have heard it in the bedroom. The elevators have alarms hooked up to smoke detectors, so they don't run in the event of a fire, but, when activated the doors are shut closed and the alarm is muffled inside the elevator shaft. You can only hear it if you live right in front of the elevator. But it is definitely not loud enough to wake you up. Since the fire was on the West side of the building it took a long time before the other elevator alarm went off on the East side by my door. The hall filled up with smoke so fast I was afraid to go out there. I thought the fire was on my floor because of all the smoke. It took less than a minute for it to fill. When I first looked it was only half full then I looked out after I had put my shoes and coat on and it was full. Borger had not educated their residents on how to use the fire alarm and I had no idea that I had to pull it. It is really hard to factor pulling an alarm into your escape plan because when you see that smoke coming in so fast you go into survival mode and just think about the basics: getting you cat into its carrier and grabbing your shoes and coat and whatever other absolute necessary things you have to have. How do you know how close the fire is and how much time you have to get out?? When fires get to a certain flash point they can burn fast so if you see alot of smoke you really have to get going. You don't know, so you move with lightning speed. It makes it very hard to go halfway down the hall into the choking smoke and pull the box to sound the alarm. When the clock is ticking and you have to save you and your cat it makes it easy to miss pulling the alarm. This is a very fallable system and all buildings in DC should retire it. It is way too risky to have to rely on someone else to pull the alarm while I'm sleeping at night. There are too many holes in this system. The whole time this was happening I couldn't figure out why the alarm wasn't going off?? All I could do was yell down the hall and hope that that would wake people up. I talked to some people who lived right in front of the West elevator and did not hear it ringing, it was very faint. They heard me yelling luckily.

    The city council needs to change the laws that allow these old buildings to be "Grandfathered" into the old fire regulations for apartment buildings. (Aparently a lot of old buildings in DC don't have to have modern fire alarms) Their cheap owners don't want to spend the money to upgrade their buildings to modern standards. They don't care about the tenants, they just want to make money off of us. What about when their greed kills us with the smoke of a fire in our sleep. Greed in America is really something. These owners of these buildings are just like all the jerks on Wall Street who greeded us into our financial crisis. Pigs.

    The tenants of DC need to rise up and change these laws. Write your council member and get them to propose new regulations to be enacted by the city council!!

  • wireless house alarm

    It is indeed scary that the fire alarms didn't work when the incident happened. Facilities such as these should make sure that all security systems are functioning properly. A regular check up and maintenance should be accomplished.