Fire That Killed Five PA Kids Changed Law, But Some Say More Needed

Firefighters on scene at a fatal Erie PA fire
Photo: Erie Firefighters IAFF Local 29

Jan Murphy

pennlive.com

(MCT)

Two years ago, the city of Erie was devastated after an overnight fire claimed the lives of five children at a family child care home.

The tragedy on Aug. 11, 2019, has not been forgotten. For those who witnessed the scene at the Harris Family Day Care, the horror of seeing a parent’s worst nightmare come true remains etched in their minds.

All of the victims were under 9 years old: La’Myhia Jones, 8; Luther Jones Jr., 6; Ava Jones, 4; and Jaydan Augustyniak, 9 months, all siblings, and 2-year-old Dalvin Pacley. Three victims were the children of a volunteer firefighter who was responding to another blaze at the time of the fire.

The fire served as a wake-up call to many.

It changed the rules for child care facilities across Pennsylvania. Under a new state law, child care operators must meet more stringent fire safety requirements to operate. Inspectors are looking to make sure of it.

Still, some say more must be done to help ensure the safety of Pennsylvania’s 6,400 licensed child care facilities.

The fatal fire also serves as a reminder to parents to ask questions about safety, including fire safety precautions, when choosing a child care provider.

“What this did was it opened parents’ eyes and everybody’s eyes to tragedies like this can happen,” said former Erie Fire Chief Guy Santone.

Santone, who logged 33 years with the fire department, retired five months after that blaze.

Before retiring, Santone helped convince Erie officials to beef up the fire safety inspection requirements on child care facilities.

Erie now requires each facility to be inspected annually for many safety items, including working smoke detectors on every floor and one in every bedroom. The smoke detectors must be interconnected.

It’s unclear how many other municipalities in Pennsylvania have such a stringent inspection schedule. The state Department of Human Services conducts annual inspections of child care facilities. State officials say they don’t know how many towns have inspections that supplement the state checks.

Elaine Harris had operated her state-certified child care home in Erie since March 2000, according to state records. The home had one smoke detector, which was working on the night of the fatal fire, Santone said.

The smoke detector was in the attic, above the second-floor bedrooms where the children slept. It woke Harris’ son, who was sleeping on the second floor. The boy roused his brother and they climbed out of a second-floor window onto a roof and jumped to safety, he said. Harris escaped the blaze but suffered some burns.

The five younger children in her care all died of smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide toxicity and thermal injuries, according to a lawsuit filed last week in Erie County Court on the families’ behalf.

The Philadelphia-based law firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi & Bendesky filed the lawsuit.

“Through our comprehensive investigation to date – that has included forensic analyses of recovered evidence from the scene – we are determined to take all necessary steps through the justice system to hold accountable those responsible for this mass-casualty fatal fire,” the firm said in a statement.

Attempts to contact Harris for this story proved unsuccessful. Attorneys for the families of the victims said, “Out of respect for their loss and the recent anniversary, we ask that you do not contact the family members, and they will not be made available for comment.”

The 55-page lawsuit states the fire originated in the living room where an electrical extension cord and oscillating fan were plugged into a power strip. It attributes the cause of the blaze to a defect in the fan and/or extension cord and seeks damages from the manufacturer, distributor, marketer and retailer of those products, the child care business and Harris. (Harris no longer operates a child care facility.)

State inspections of the home over a 10-year period, including the last one in December 2018, noted several health and safety violations. One infraction appeared on several of Harris’ inspection reports going back to 2013. Inspectors noted uncovered electrical outlets in the living room and elsewhere; Harris indicated she would correct it by covering them.

The recurring infraction should have raised a red flag, said child welfare advocate Cathleen Palm of the Center for Children’s Justice.

“If you keep dinging it on an inspection report one after another after another, at some point it feels like you got to say something different needs to happen,” she said.

The Department of Human Services accepted Harris’ correction plan for that violation, along with eight others found during its final inspection in mid-March 2019. The state issued a certificate of compliance that was valid until March 21, 2020.

For Santone, determining the cause of the blaze wasn’t enough. In his heart, he felt there should never have been one life lost, let alone five.

“I honestly believe to this day that if there was a proper amount of smoke detectors in this building nobody would have died,” he said. “They might have been injured but I think we could have got everybody out.”

  • Looking for child care providers and want to check their safety record? The Department of Human Services provides this website allowing parents to find licensed child care providers and several years of inspection reports.

Smoke detectors save lives

In Erie, there are more than 150 structure fires each year. Santone said most of them happen overnight. He asked the people who were inside those buildings how they knew there was a fire. Their response: the smoke detectors went off.

“Smoke detectors save lives and that’s it. That’s the bottom line,” Santone said.

The day after the Erie fire, Santone returned to the scene. He was surprised to learn the state’s annual inspections of child care facilities did not include looking for working smoke detectors. He admits the fire department didn’t know a family child care home was at that location; a state official informed him about two dozen others in Erie that were unknown to the fire department.

Human Services officials said some municipalities issue a certificate of occupancy to child care providers, while others depend on the state Department of Labor and Industry to perform the certificate of occupancy inspection process, which includes fire safety checks.

If a provider applies for a certificate of occupancy locally, a department spokeswoman said the municipality would have information on record about the location of its child care facilities.

Erin James, a human services department spokeswoman, said anyone, including municipal officials who do not have their own certificate of occupancy process, can access an updated list of all licensed child care providers on the state’s Open Data Portal.

Before the Erie fire, Tracey Campanini, a deputy secretary in the Human Services department, said the agency’s inspections entailed checking for smoke detectors but not whether they were operable.

A review of the fatal fire by department officials determined that needed to change, former Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said a month after the fire.

“This tragedy made clear that DHS, as the department primarily responsible for the regulation of child care facilities, should also be evaluating facilities for the presence of operable smoke detectors and fire extinguishers as well,” Miller said.

Miller announced starting Sept. 16, 2019, inspectors would be required to do fire safety checks in every inspection. Those checks would include noting the presence of working smoke detectors on each floor and fire extinguishers in cooking areas.

Inspectors don’t test the smoke detectors, Campanini said. Rather, they listen and observe the child care operator manually demonstrate the alarm’s operability.

Some facilities have systems that are unable to be manually demonstrated due to their complexity or because they are in a larger building, she said. In those instances, “there is the requirement that there was a certified communication from the people that installed it or a qualified company that can speak to the fact that it has been tested.”

Beyond adding fire safety checks, the department also conducted an initiative to alert child care providers to its fire prevention rules. The agency also surveyed them about their emergency plans, including evacuation plans for children in overnight care.

In an interview with PennLive, Acting Human Services Secretary Meg Snead praised the department’s response in the wake of the Erie fire.

“This is a really good example of as soon as a problem is identified we stepped in with a way to fix it,” Snead said. “We can’t always anticipate these things but we can certainly work quickly to correct them once they’ve been identified.”

Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie County, who recognized the emotional scars the fire left on constituents in his district, wasn’t as satisfied with the department’s response.

Changing the law

Laughlin, who has 35 years of experience in the construction industry, said something seemed amiss about the Erie fire.

“I just thought to myself something didn’t feel right about that especially in this day and age with smoke detectors being so inexpensive and widely pushed,” Laughlin said.

After the fire, he reached out to Miller, the former Human Services secretary, to ask whether inspectors check to make sure smoke detectors are working.

Laughlin said she told him that wasn’t the department’s job and inspectors would have to be trained. “And I said, ‘Secretary, it’s a smoke detector. Everybody knows how to press the test button and see if it’s working, right?’”

Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline said he brought that up to state officials after the Erie fire as well. They told him it was a liability issue for inspectors because they had no training.

“We need to train the inspectors to do a test on the fire alarm system or smoke detectors,” Enterline said.

Laughlin said he is pleased the department now requires inspectors to ensure smoke detectors are working.

“But I thought it was important to get it codified in law rather than just have it as a department regulation that they could change down the road,” Laughlin said.

So he introduced legislation that requires all child care facilities to test their interconnected fire detection device or system monthly. If that isn’t possible, a fire safety professional must confirm it is operational on an annual basis.

Further, his bill requires written logs to be maintained to document these tests are performed and state inspectors are to conduct a visual inspection of smoke detectors.

Nearly 11 months after the Erie fire, lawmakers approved the bill and Gov. Tom Wolf signed it. The law, known as Act 62, took effect in mid-November 2020.

In the time period between when the state began checking for working smoke detectors and the day Laughlin’s law took effect, a PennLive analysis of child care facility inspection reports showed just six smoke detector violations were noted.

After the law took effect, the number of smoke/fire detection system violations rose to 223 by April 20, according to PennLive’s analysis.

Campanini attributed the rise in violations to the law′s more stringent requirements that exceeded department rules – including the law’s requirement for monthly testing and interconnected smoke detector devices.

When told about the rise in the number of smoke detector violations being discovered, Laughlin said, “It’s nice to know it’s doing something.”

Knowing the department’s inspectors are looking for interconnected working smoke detectors from his standpoint is “99% of what needs done.”

He said the goal of the law isn’t to punish child care operators.

“It’s just trying to up the level of safety a little bit,” Laughlin said.

This year, Laughlin sponsored another bill targeted at licensed family child care homes. His legislation calls for requiring them to have interconnected smoke detectors on every floor and a fire extinguisher in cooking areas, cementing what is already in department regulations.

A family child care home is defined by the state as a residence where four to six children unrelated to the caregiver receive care. Other types of state-licensed child care facilities are a group child care home, which can serve between seven up through 12 or 15 children depending on their ages, and a child care center that provides care to seven or more children.

Laughlin’s latest legislation passed the Senate in June by a 50-0 vote. It awaits action by the House Labor & Industry Committee.

Initially, Laughlin said he thought requiring interconnected detectors might be too costly for small child care operations if it involved tearing out ceilings and walls. After some research, he found a six-pack of interconnected smoke detectors could be bought for $100.

“So I didn’t think it was a financial burden on anybody at this point,” he said.

The Human Services Department supports the bill.

Lasting impact

Two years after the Erie fire, the Harris property is now a cleared lot in the middle of its residential neighborhood.

A memorial of balloons and teddy bears serves as a reminder of the five lives lost there, said Erie fire inspector Darren Hart.

But memories of that day linger in other ways.

Hart, Laughlin and state Reps. Ryan Bizzarro and Rob Merski, both Erie County Democrats, say they know firefighters who still struggle with what they witnessed at that fire and simply can’t talk about it.

Santone, the retired chief, remembers looking around after the fire had been knocked down that night and seeing firefighters sitting or kneeling.

“They had this blank stare on their face like what the hell just happened,” he said. “Then I got a report from one of the officers that a couple of guys were having a real hard time.”

Some required counseling. Merski said he knows of firefighters who retired because of it.

“It was just too hard on them, pulling those children out,” Merski said. “It was one of the hardest fires the Erie Fire Department had in many, many years.”

It left its mark on the broader firefighting community as well, said Enterline, Harrisburg’s fire chief.

Enterline said it wasn’t a surprise a significant fire like that occurred, given what he describes as lax codes statewide when it comes to fire safety and in particular, sprinkler systems. He said the devastation of the lost lives hit firefighters in a way that for some, may go unnoticed.

“Anytime you have anybody that dies, I don’t care if that’s a child or an adult, that is a sting to us because as a firefighter, our job is to protect people,” Enterline said.

“When people succumb to a fire, we feel that we failed the community and failed at our job knowing full well we can’t prevent tragedies like that from occurring.”

In Harrisburg, there is a sprinkler law on larger day care centers but not family child care homes that serve fewer than six children, said Enterline. His department has a good working relationship with the city’s code enforcement staff to ensure all licensed child care facilities are as safe as possible.

Additionally, he said several child care facilities rely on the department to provide an annual fire safety training course that their employees are required by state regulation to take.

“It gives us an in because they have to have someone certified to provide that training,” Enterline said. “So we provide that and are able to get into the majority of those facilities and have a look around.”

Positive changes

The Department of Human Services is working on bringing the number of child care facility inspectors up to a full complement of 137. The department has 21 vacancies but Campanini said 10 positions will soon be filled.

That will move the department toward its goal of having one inspector responsible for no more than 55 facilities, which is down from the 2015 standard of one for every 114 facilities.

“When we are at full complement, I think the ratio will slim down and that will be much better than what we were in the past,” said Shante’ Brown, director of the department’s Bureau of Certification in the Office of Child Development and Early Learning.

For child care providers, the tragedy in Erie presented a gut check moment.

John Sperduto is the president of the nonprofit Child Care Professionals Network, a statewide organization based in Delaware County that serves as a resource center for child care providers.

“We felt it deeply because you automatically think ‘God, that could have happened in my center. We could have been dealing with this tragic loss,’” Sperduto said. “Their loss, we felt. We felt that deeply. We felt that to the heart.”

It also opened a greater awareness for providers to prepare for emergencies and “really taking an extra minute to ensure that those systems are in place, that we practice those drills, that we know that we can get out if there’s an emergency or an incident,” he added.

Sperduto learned that lesson in 1992 when a trash truck crashed into his child care center in Marcus Hook, Delaware County. The truck severed the center’s electrical service, setting the building on fire with 60 children ages 2, 3 and 4 years old and 10 staffers inside.

“We evacuated safely in less than 2 minutes but we had practiced and practiced and practiced so we knew,” Sperduto said. “You have to be prepared.”

Santone believes others had a wake-up call.

“A lot of people became aware,” he said.

“What this did was it opened parents’ eyes and everybody’s eyes to tragedies like this can happen. …. As bad as that was – and you can’t get any worse than that – at least something good came out of it.”

Jan Murphy may be reached at jmurphy@pennlive.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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