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City fire meeting poorly attended

May 27, 2009
BERLIN — Berlin Police Chief Peter Morency gave a presentation on area fires and what the community can to do to make people safer on Wednesday night, but he spoke to more empty chairs than citizens.

The presentation was offered by the Berlin Police Commission. They had assembled a panel of experts to answer questions and dispel rumors about the recent fires in the area, including Fire Chief Randall Trull and Deputy John Southwell from the state fire marshal's office.

The goal of the meeting was to take an aggressive approach to the arson problem, but the turnout was disappointing for some.

"People have to be more proactive," Mr. Southwell said. "Berlin has 10,300 people. There are 11 people here. Where is the community interest?"

Some of the community interest came out in heated debates about what to do about abandoned buildings around the city. Several members of the audience said they had houses near them just waiting to be lit on fire. What was the city going to do about it? they asked.

City Manager Pat McQueen said the city would do whatever it could to make properties safe, but many times if the taxes are paid on the property there isn't much the city can do. He said there were avenues for dealing with dangerous and dilapidated properties, but a number of state regulations keep the city from bulldozing whatever building it wants to.

Chief Morency had to ask several times for people to hold their comments so he could continue with the presentation. He started with the question of why Berlin sees so much arson.

Lots of vacant, old buildings, he said, in disrepair, combined with lots of people out at night because they don't work during the day, produce the unusual number of fires, he said.

But, he said, all the fires around the city aren't due to arson.

"The minute someone sees a fire in Berlin they run off saying there goes another one," he said, which isn't always true.

Mr. Southwell echoed the chief's comment. He said he had barely started his journey north to investigate this month's pub fire when he heard media reports saying it was arson. It wasn't arson, he said, and these types of rumors aren't helpful.

Chief Morency went through a number of tips people can follow to reduce the danger to their homes of arson and fires.

"These guys aren't walking around with gas cans," he said. "They burn what's there."

So he recommended people keep their properties clean, trim shrubs, report suspicious activity and form a neighborhood watch. He said it is up to the community to keep these fires from continuing to start.

The police chief also announced the launching of the city's enrollment in Nixle, a social networking website that will allow police and fire to keep the community alerted to important information involving fires and other crimes. Sign-up for Nixle is free and will allow the city to keep people informed, Chief Morency said.

Most of the comments from people at the presentation were directed to what the city is going to do about specific buildings, to which no one could give definite answers. Mr. McQueen said the city would look at each property that was brought to its attention to see what it could do, but explained they were bound by the state's legal framework.

By the end of the meeting the chief of police brought the conversation back to what each individual home owner and resident could do. But only 10 residents, a few city councilors and some city employees got the message.

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