WELLFLEET — At the Sept. 12 annual town meeting voters agreed to spend $110,000 to design a sprinkler system for the Wellfleet Elementary School, because, the fire chief said, one was not installed in a $4.5-million 1990 renovation.
Not including it back then violated the state building code, said Chief Rich Pauley.
“From what I know, the fire chief was asked not to do his job,” Pauley told the Independent.
An investigation into the events leading to that decision found that the acting fire chief at the time, George Malloy, fought to get sprinklers on the town meeting warrant in 1990 but was overruled by then Town Administrator Julia Enroth.
“It sounds to me like the town administrator violated the state building code and put undue influence on the fire chief,” Pauley said.
Wellfleet in 1990 had serious growing pains. The new library was under construction. Along with the elementary school project, voters faced the renovation of Nauset Regional Middle School and a town hall building project.
His memories of that time are fuzzy, said Jay Horowitz, a school building committee member back then who still lives in Wellfleet. He recalled that “George Malloy really wanted to have a sprinkler system. For some reason, we didn’t buy it. People were on us about money. Why put all this money into the school when the population is going down?”
But, Horowitz continued, if omitting the sprinkler system was truly a violation of state law, “I cannot imagine we would do it.”
Developer Gerry Parent was also on that building committee. There was no water supply at the school, he said, making it nearly impossible to build a system with enough water pressure. He also remembered pressure to keep costs down.
Berta Bruinooge was on the finance committee back then, and “she was tough,” Parent said. “She didn’t want to see our numbers go up.”
Bruinooge herself, who is now 80, said she cannot remember that particular situation.
The year 1990 was volatile at the fire dept. Chief William Berrio had retired, and Malloy, a lieutenant, was appointed acting chief. An accountant whose office is now in Brewster, Malloy said the sprinkler system dispute “was one of the nails in my coffin,” leading him ultimately to leave the department.
Malloy said he arranged for three 20,000-gallon tanks to be installed at the elementary school to store water for the sprinkler system. The town, he said, had just paid $25,000 for a new well, so that, with the tanks, there would have been enough to pressurize sprinklers.
The building committee was rushing to get the project approved to secure a 57-percent reimbursement from the state, a favorable vote being necessary to release the funds, according to the building committee’s statement in the 1990 Town Report.
The committee’s report also states, “After the committee reviewed the fire suppression system options available, and after careful consideration of the Acting Fire Chief’s recommendations, it was decided to adopt the original fire alarm system recommended by the school architect, Mount Vernon Group, Inc.”
A Mount Vernon Group architect could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Malloy told the Independent he wanted the sprinkler system to go before town meeting voters, and he went to Enroth to place an article on the warrant. “She flatly refused,” he said.
“The whole thing would have been paid off in five years with insurance savings.”
Enroth, who now lives in Orleans, said she cannot remember the school project. “If I told George it could not go on the warrant, I have no idea why,” she said.
When Enroth refused his request, Malloy vowed that no one in his department would ever inspect the elementary school again.
Pauley said he cannot find any fire inspector’s signature on the finished building or the building permit authorizing the renovation, though such a signature may not have been necessary at the time.
Soon after, Malloy said, Roger Henson, of California, came to the fire station and said, “Hi, I’m the new chief.”
To which Malloy said he replied, “ ‘You are, huh?’ and I kicked him out.”
On Henson’s first day, he suspended Malloy for insubordination. Malloy resigned and went to work for several more years at the Truro Fire Dept.
“That’s the problem with town politics,” said Malloy. “I love Julia Enroth. She’s a wonderful woman. But that decision should have been made by voters.”
Parent said he cannot believe that the architect and state officials would allow the town to violate state law.
But Pauley said, it happens.
Pauley worked for the state fire marshal’s office from 1986 to 1988 in code enforcement. At that time, Eastham’s fire chief, Jack Austin, was disputing the Eastham building inspector’s approval of the construction of the Norseman Athletic Center (now Willy’s World gym) without a sprinkler system. Austin took his complaint to the state Board of Building Regulation and Standards, which ultimately found that, in fact, the Norseman should have had sprinklers, Pauley said.
Pauley said small-town officials back then were not always up to date on codes. “There were so many volunteer and acting fire chiefs,” Pauley said.
Asked if there is any punishment for a violation for the omission, Pauley said he is not interested in that. But retrofitting the elementary school with a sprinkler system now won’t be cheap.