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Robin Helfand
Firefighters gather at the entrance to the Barrington House on Main Street in Great Barrington where a malfunctioning sprinkler system flooded the first floor.

Sprinkler system freeze-up floods Barrington House; tenants flee into frigid street

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By Sunday, Dec 31, 2017 News 11

Great Barrington — As if residents and merchants in the Barrington House didn’t have enough to worry about during this spell of bitter cold.

The sprinkler system in the iconic Main Street building malfunctioned this afternoon, sending merchants and apartment dwellers scurrying out into the near-zero temperatures and causing businesses to close for hours on a holiday weekend during the important après ski hours.

Robin Helfand, owner of Robin’s Candy several doors down from the Barrington House atrium, told The Edge that around 3:40 p.m. the building’s fire alarm went off, which because of its ear-splitting shriek, sent her employees and staff members from first-floor restaurants such as GB Eats, Baba Louie’s, Siam and Tangier, out onto the sidewalk to shiver.

“There were six to eight inches of water in the hallway,” Helfand said, referring to the lobby of the Barrington House, a former hotel. “Water was pouring in.”

Fire alarms from the broken sprinkler system next door emptied Robin’s Candy Shop of customers. Photo: Robin Helfand

Helfand added that the “audible alarm and strobe lights triggered while water flooded the lobby/arcade of the Barrington House spilling onto the sidewalk causing icing and street closure.”

In an interview from her store a couple of hours later, Helfand was clearly upset. She said she had lost “thousands of dollars in business” at a “key time of the year,” though her store itself did not suffer significant water damage.

Fire Chief Charlie Burger told The Edge his department received a call at 3:41 p.m. about a sprinkler flow alarm and a possible fire. Instead, he found “a broken sprinkler pipe in the atrium which flooded out much of the ground floor.” That sprinkler pipe was near the Fiesta Mexican restaurant, which suffered ceiling damage at the rear of the atrium.

Once his firefighters saw that there was no fire, they shut the sprinkler system down, drained it and cleaned up the area “as best we could,” using squeegees and other tools. Damage was limited to the first floor, he said.

There has been speculation that smoke or perhaps a malfunctioning fireplace caused the alarm to go off, triggering the sprinkler system. But Burger threw cold water on that theory, so to speak.

“I’m 99 percent certain the pipe froze,” Burger said.

When a sprinkler pipe is activated or is ruptured, it sets off the flow alarm, which in turn activates the fire alarm. But the converse does not happen. If a fire alarm is set off by heat or manually, it will not activate the sprinkler system, Burger explained.

The fire department was on scene for about an hour. The sidewalk in front of the building was flooded with water that quickly froze. Helfand said she went to Carr Hardware and bought several 50-pound bags of sand and she and her employees spread them onto the sidewalk, not only in front of Robin’s but throughout the sidewalks of the affected businesses.

The sidewalk was closed for several hours. Burger said one southbound lane on Main Street was closed while firefighters performed their operations and Great Barrington Police directed traffic around the fire truck.

Burger said his department has been receiving lots of calls for frozen pipes during this cold snap. He urged residents and merchants to check their pipes and take precautions against the possibility of them freezing. Click here for tips from Popular Mechanics on how to prevent indoor and outdoor pipes from freezing.

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11 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Casey says:

    Thank goodness it was only a pipe. Look at the devastating fires in surrounding areas these past few weeks, we could have had a gutted center of Main Street, many people homeless, businesses lost. Not the way to end 2017. I do find it a little hard to believe that a business was going to be out “thousands of dollars” in the period of time it was inoperable. This is candy, I know people like it but “thousands of dollars”?
    Terry, did you check with the restaurants to see how much business they might have lost or were they just thankful to the GBFD and GBPD they still had a business to run and weren’t looking at a burned out building and jobless with many of their customer homeless?

    1. sue says:

      hats off to you to be able to respond to his , so true it could have been so much worse

  2. Joni Johnsen says:

    Thousands of dollars worth of business? Prices are ridiculous, but really? Thank heavens it wasn’t a fire and/or resident’s made uninhabitable this time of year. As always, GBFD & PD responding quickly & appropriately.

    1. Alice Lahnstein says:

      Well said…anything about the RESIDENTS of the building, Robin?

      1. Robert Arthur Stanley says:

        And Bobby’s office and all my files!!!! ????????

  3. Bob says:

    Yeah i am not buying the “thousands of dollars” in losses. I suspect she was upset and therefore being overdramatic. It was an accident, they happen. Get over it. Nobody was hurt. Thats really whats important.

  4. Joseph Method says:

    Thousands of dollars sounded off to me too but then I thought if 20 customers spend 50 each that would be $1000. So it’s not that wild a claim.

  5. Laura says:

    WOW!!! She’s got some kind of business if she can lose “thousands of dollars” in two hours that the store would have been open.
    I guess we should all go into the candy business.
    The fire department responded quickly and at least is wasn’t a devastating fire.
    Happy New Year!!!

  6. Robin says:

    First, a heartfelt Thanks to the GBFD and GBPD for the rapid and effective response to yesterday’s incident in the Barrington House. The quick and thorough actions by all responders certainly kept the water damage and business disruption to a minimum. We are all most grateful the incident was not a fire and did not cause devastating damage.

    A clarification; My comments indicated businesses– including ours — suffered losses totalling in the thousands resulting from business disruption during and after the incident , the subsequent sidewalk/street closure and icy sidewalks which diminished access later in the afternoon. The overall disruption lasted beyond the sprinkler shut off .
    Reliable sales records confirm the economic losses. For perspective, we often serve more than 100 families per hour during New Years weekend with family purchases over $25/per (ie $2500/hr).

    Importantly, the focus of my discussion was not to emphasize the economic impact of the sprinkler malfunction. Our store and others affected were crowded with visitors, all of whom were safe Thanks to the quick actions of GBFD and GBPD.

    Again, our Thanks to all who responded with skill and expertise.
    Robin & Team

  7. catherine says:

    I am curious…”100 families an hour”and loss of thousands of dollars”…is that in Robin’s Candy Store, or in all of the merchants affected total? If it is just Robin’s, wouldn’t that work out to approximately 1 family every 36 seconds? If an average family is 2 adults, and 2 children, and they spend an average of 20 minutes shopping, and “checking out in 36 seconds”…wouldn’t that mean 133 people go thru that store every 20 minutes? Our family of 4 just did the math, and are just wondering…what is the source of information for the financial looses? We are relieved that no one was injured, and our volunteers are truly amazing!!!

    1. Laura says:

      I would like to know where all these people are parking? I seriously don’t think a candy store is doing that much business during the week. I have only been in there once when it first opened and I haven’t been back ( can’t afford it).

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