Massachusetts Court Strikes Down Local Ordinance Requiring Radio Boxes

Today’s burning question: Can a fire department require commercial buildings to have a municipally connected fire alarm system that uses a radio box?

Answer: Yes … and no …  Actually it all depends on how you go about doing it.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that held that municipalities cannot simply pass an ordinance mandating radio boxes when the state building code allows the property owner to use an alternative means of compliance.

The details of the case are a bit complicated. In fact I have read a number of articles online that don’t quite seem to fully grasp the ruling… Hopefully I can do better!!!! The predictions of doom and gloom for radio boxes is entirely unfounded!!! And the case has virtually no impact outside the state of Massachusetts!!!

The case arose in 2009 when the Springfield Fire Department cited St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral  for having a fire alarm system that was not connected to the municipal fire alarm system via a radio box. The city sought to fine St. George’s $3,000.

Springfield had enacted an ordinance in 2006 that mandates that buildings such as the cathedral be municipally connected via radio boxes. When the cathedral was renovated in early 2009, a different type of system was installed that met the state building code, but did not meet Springfield’s radio box requirement.

The building code allows for four methods of alarm signaling:

“1. A UL listed or FM approved Central Station Service in accordance with NFPA 72 …

“2…. Approved propriety supervising station system, in accordance with NFPA 72 …

“[3.] Approved remote station fire alarm system supervising station in accordance with NFPA 72…

“[4.] Alarm signals to an approved Auxiliary Fire Alarm System in accordance with NFPA 72, with supervisory signals supervised by one or two above or at a constantly attended location approved by the local fire department, having personnel on duty trained to recognize the type of signal received and to take prescribed action. This shall be permitted to be a location different from that at which alarm signals are received.”

The code does not expressly state that local officials have the authority to specify one of the four methods nor prohibit others.

The Springfield ordinance enacted in 2006 is Section 7.13.035, which states:

“A. No Master Box shall be installed in the City of Springfield after the adoption of this ordinance.

“B. Any construction underway before or after the adoption of this ordinance calling for the installation of a Master Box shall instead have a City approved Radio Box installed.

“C. All Master Boxes located in the City of Springfield must be replaced with a City approved Radio Box by December 21, 2008. The owner(s) of the property where the Master Box is located shall be responsible for any and all costs of compliance with this ordinance.”

St. George’s initially appealed to the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, who by state law has the authority to adopt a building code, issue variances, and hear appeals of enforcement actions. The Board agreed that the cathedral met the state code, but concluded it was powerless to override a stricter municipal ordinance. St. George’s then filed suit in Superior Court claiming the Springfield ordinance was invalid because it was pre-empted by the state code. When the trial court agreed, Springfield appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

While a number of side issues arose in the decision, the fundamental question came down to whether state law allows municipalities to enact ordinances that are stricter than the state building code, or whether state law pre-empts local law. Springfield claimed its home rule charter gave it the authority to go beyond what the state required. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) disagreed.

The court reasoned that the legislature gave the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards the exclusive discretion to decide how fire alarm systems should be connected to fire departments. The board saw fit to give building owners four choices, and in doing so did not authorize local fire officials or municipalities to limit those choices.

It appears that the court may have misunderstood the fact that municipalities differ greatly in the organization and capabilities of their dispatch centers. Consider the following quote from the decision:  “If all municipalities in the Commonwealth were allowed to enact similarly restrictive ordinances and bylaws, a patchwork of … regulations would ensue.” The context of the quote was that it would be an unreasonable burden if every municipality was free to choose how it handled its fire alarms… Imagine…

I suppose the judges had not realized that by striking down the Springfield ordinance, they in essence have required all fire departments in the state to be prepared to receive alarms in any of the four ways that the state code allows… and thus cannot choose one preferred method.  Undoubtedly, their decision was focused on a bigger picture – that if municipalities could change this provision of the code they could change others as well… However, the reasoning shows they are missing a detailed understanding that we would hope they have before making such a ruling on fire alarm systems.

The SJC was not entirely unsympathetic to the fire department – but recognized that the fire department had other options. Consider the following from a footnote:

“According to the city’s submissions, by mandating this “[c]ity approved Radio Box,” the city is attempting to circumvent third-party relay of fire alarms and thereby increase response times. We are not indifferent to the city’s concerns. The Legislature, however, has placed in the board the responsibility for determining, on a Statewide basis, what “fire protective signaling systems and automatic fire detection systems” are permitted in Massachusetts. The board has provided building owners throughout the Commonwealth with a choice from among four specified systems, a reflection of its judgment that all four options sufficiently protect public safety. Pursuant to the statute, the board has an obligation to “make a continuing study of the operation of the [code] … to ascertain [its] effect upon the cost of building construction and the effectiveness of [its] provisions for health, safety, energy conservation and security.” … The board, which by statute must include the State fire marshal and the head of a municipal fire department…  is best able to balance these objectives. Because of this expertise, the Legislature has delegated such decisions to the board, and we will neither second guess its determinations ourselves nor allow municipalities to do so.

“But the city is not without recourse. First, it could avail itself of the statutory mechanism described above … and request that the board allow it to utilize a more restrictive standard. Second, the city “may propose amendments to the state building code,” which “shall” be considered at public hearings held twice annually. … Third, the city could pursue direct action in the Legislature to change the code.”

In the end, municipalities seeking to limit alarm system connections to a specific type need to obtain approval from the Board of Building Regulations and Standards. Indeed, Massachusetts law allows the Board to grant such requests. In addition, the Board itself, could choose to change its code to allow municipalities to designate one alarm method over another. Lastly, the legislature could amend the law to give municipalities to ability to place additional restrictions on alarm connections.

Municipalities just cannot do it via ordinance in Massachusetts!

Here is a copy of the decision. St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral v Fire Department of Springfield

Any of our Mass friends out there – please feel free to add your thoughts.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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