This might be the longest update yet. Brace yourself. Our final word on fire prevention.
Retail businesses are considered the safest of all commercial occupancies. When we moved into that building the city came in, inspected everything, advised us on safety standards, and made sure we were up to code and met all current standards before we opened. 54 times the fire inspectors have inspected us and confirmed that our building was, in fact, safe. For 27 years it did prove to be safe so their assessments were essentially accurate. Based on current standards, nothing we should have done or could have done would have prevented this fire. It was an accident that could not have been foreseen and that is the final official word. It seems like the entire city has assured us this fire was not our fault. Yet we are wracked with grief and guilt – Tim, of course, more than anyone because of who he is – because maybe it wasn’t technically our fault, but ultimately we are the ones who failed and for that, we are truly sorry.
Pet World has never been the kind of place to only do the minimum to get by. We lead the pet industry in always finding ways to improve. For example, when we suspected something was wrong with chameleons in the pet trade we went to Florida unannounced to visit the wholesale suppliers. We discovered that chameleons were being imported and commercially raised in unacceptable conditions. Consequently, Pet World stopped selling chameleons for years until we could responsibly raise our own. Did we lose sales? Sure. But it’s not about the money. More than once the state standards for pet stores have been raised because of the standards set by Pet World. In everything we’ve ever done we've exceeded the minimum - except one.
When our pipes burst we call a plumber. When we have cavities we go to the dentist. Regarding fire safety we deferred to the city safety codes for a retail business. That was not adequate. Especially when a pet store is not like just any business. We should have asked the experts. Lawrence has fire prevention specialists we could have asked but we didn’t. We let 20 years go by and never thought to ask an expert if the building we were leasing was still safe. In this way, we feel responsible for not making our business as safe as possible. As far as the codes go, yes, they are considered safe and we were in compliance but what if the codes are too minimal and fire prevention has improved since we first rented that building? Our personal guilt exists because we never thought to ask the right questions of the right people.
So now we are championing for fire prevention reform and asking the city to raise the safety standards for animal facilities in particular. Why? Because, quite honestly, we are diligent and responsible folks. If we never thought to question codes it is my opinion that other people would make the same mistake. We should have had ongoing risk evaluations by trained professionals regardless of safety codes but we didn’t. I think our failure is proof that fire prevention is too important to leave to building and business owners. It’s not enough to simply hope that some property owners and some business owners will take extra measures. Most won't. Some won't do it because of money; others won't do it because they will accept the city's guidelines as sufficient. Therefore, we believe the standards need to be elevated so no one falls into the complacency trap again.
The new city commission had already put a team in place to look into safety codes after the animal facility fire last November. They were already considering changes and had begun the process of interviewing stakeholders and looking into adopting higher standards but as Commissioner Herbert said last night, “Government is slow.” Along with Kate Meghji, the Executive Director of the Lawrence Humane Society, we attended last night’s meeting to offer our input as major stakeholders who had yet to be consulted. The mayor, vice mayor, and commissioners were open, interested, and genuinely kind. Mayor Farmer even took the time to offer his personal condolences to our staff. I promise you, we felt respected and heard and we believe this commission will not let this issue rest until it is resolved.
Regarding the changes we said that we are supportive but recommended additional changes above and beyond what was being proposed. We believe that monitored detection AND sprinklers should be mandated in ALL animal facilities, regardless of size, as soon as possible. No exceptions.
Mandatory monitored fire and smoke detection is a good beginning but detection and warnings don’t put out fires – water does. There was a time when many people were opposed to sprinklers and I fully admit, I was a little scared of them, too. There is a reason almost no animal facilities have sprinklers - people don’t trust them. Not just in Lawrence, but all over the country. But after thoughtful, sincere counsel from a few of our local experts we have completely changed our minds and wish we would have acted sooner. Sprinkler systems have evolved. Modern, strategically placed sprinklers that react one at a time, only in response to heat, are very useful in extinguishing or at least reducing the quick spread of a fire while firefighters are en route. Birds, small mammals, cats, and dogs die from fumes and smoke so quickly that sprinklers keeping the fire under control may be their only hope as they await rescue.
In the case of the Pet World fire, properly monitored detection might have brought firefighters to the scene in 20 minutes instead of 30 but the animals who perished all died within five minutes. Early warning would have reduced the extent of building damage but it would not have saved many lives, if any. Also, due to the nature of the fire, had there been people in the building, running to save animals through doors opened in haste, dangerous drafts could have been created that could have worsened the fire with everyone still inside. In that scenario, sprinklers are the only thing that could have actually helped.
The absolute greatest losses in our fire were not the animals who died on our 8000 square foot sales floor. The most unbearable losses were the personal pets who were boarding in our boarding room. One reptile, one bird, and eight small mammals died from fumes and smoke in a 120 square foot space, located 90 feet from the fire, with a solid, closed door, separated by four walls. The boarding room was three rooms away from the fire and never experienced heat, therefore, modern sprinklers would not have been tripped in that room. The only thing that could have saved the boarding pets is if sprinklers could have minimized the fire itself which would have minimized the fumes and smoke before they had a chance to spread. We mourn the loss of all animals who died, but the lives of these pets were the most heartbreaking because they were not awaiting homes. These pets already had homes - loving homes whose owners adored them. Our management team has shed countless tears in our attempts to adequately reach out and offer condolence to the families who lost pets in the fire - one of which who is still on vacation and likely has no idea. As sad as it was to lose the animals for sale, no one will go home at night and miss them in the way they miss family pets.
The proposed safety changes only require sprinklers in large facilities, over 3000 square feet, like Pet World and the shelter – both of which house mostly animals awaiting homes. Nearly all other facilities in Lawrence – the ones that house people’s pets – are exempt from the sprinkler requirement. This makes no sense. All animal lives are equal but if there must be a value distinction with regard to fire safety it would have to be pets above non pets, not the other way around. The two pet facilities affected by the new sprinkler requirement are already planning to install sprinklers anyway and fully recognize that all animals need to be protected yet these changes don’t protect pets. If we can recognize the value of a non-pet's life by requiring sprinklers, surely we should acknowledge the value of pets' lives. I realize the expenses for sprinkler systems will cause financial hardship to small business owners but no amount of money is worth what just happened to this town. The community is rocked. People are gutted. My staff feels lost and tortured. I am sickened and ashamed. And Tim is wracked with pain and grief. This can't happen again.
Currently we are closed with no revenue whatsoever. Our labor is higher than any facility in town. Our store makes barely enough to operate in the black and is currently destroyed. Yet we stood before the commission, at more financial risk than any pet facility in this city, proposing that money should not be the deciding factor in the health and protection of animals - especially pets. Exempting small facilities does not protect the vast majority of boarding pets. And, quite honestly, after receiving expert counsel on the merits of modern day fire sprinklers, I can’t believe any pet professional in town would oppose mandating sprinkler systems. We would have much rather been required to make these changes before the fire than come to learn what needed to be done the hard way after so much loss.
Our hope is that the city will make code changes that will truly protect animals, all animals, and especially pets. If dedicated business owners like us can slip into complacency with minimal fire safety then it can happen to anyone. We are holding ourselves accountable and expect that all of us should be held to a higher standard. We know the odds. 10,000 days we never had a fire. Chances are it will never happen again. But the only day that matters now is the one day that happened against all odds.
Our city’s fire experts should be free to request the code changes they truly believe are best, with no concern of opposition due to financial hardship. If these mandated changes are too much of a financial burden and shut us down then so be it. We are willing to take that chance to ensure nothing like this happens again.
Our staff is very close. We communicate all the time and have held on to each other pretty tight since the fire. Last night, when I was allowed to address the commission, the Pet World staff stood behind me in quiet but commanding support. They, too, are embarrassed that they didn’t think to ask the right questions and all of them are hurting. I told the employees that any of them could join me if they wanted to but it was up to them. They all came. You should have seen them, filing in, respectfully silent, grieving, in their matching camo Pet World shirts that so aptly state, “Not afraid to get dirty.” It was a true testament of their character and dedication.
Today, Tim and I had two fire fighters in our living room. I shared with them how when Tim was growing up he would frequently call home from school and make his mom check on his pets, ensuring they had food and water. He can recall exact scenarios from any time in his life he felt that an animal may have suffered in any way due to his negligence. The concept of animal suffering is debilitating to Tim and he is internalizing guilt over every single life that was lost. Right now he is dying inside with guilt and grief over letting everyone down, but the animals more than anyone else.
Initial estimates for installing a sprinkler system are around $60,000.00. Our insurance is good but we do not have coverage for sprinklers. The building owners still have not confirmed that they will assist us in any way with installing sprinklers and they probably won't be required to. It looks like we’re on our own with this one but that’s okay; it’s our responsibility. We were asked if the expense is too much and the new safety codes don’t pass, would we consider operating another pet store in a building without fire sprinklers. Tim is now so sickened by that idea that he can barely respond. I hope no one from the press ever asks such a question again. The answer is no. Never. When you know better, you do better. If we can’t do this right, we won’t do it at all.