Aspen fire alarm letter prompts resignation, disbelief
A longtime volunteer captain with the Aspen Fire Protection District resigned his post last month after the alarm company he owns sent a “threatening” letter to customers that appeared to come from the fire marshal, fire officials said Tuesday.
The letter was written on letterhead from the protection district, featured Fire Marshal Parker Lathrop’s name at the bottom and contained inaccurate information, Lathrop said. It was sent out April 1 by Basalt-based Proguard Protection Services Inc. in an effort to urge customers to have their alarm systems inspected, according to Lathrop and the letter.
“(My reaction was) kind of disbelief,” Lathrop said Tuesday. “To see my name on our letterhead on something we had not written was hard to believe, and it’s still hard to believe.”
Fire Chief Rick Balentine said he asked Proguard owner Frank Bauer to resign from his position as volunteer captain with the department because of the letter. Bauer was a volunteer firefighter in Aspen for 18 years, he said.
“I was very upset about both the message and the way it was delivered,” Balentine said Tuesday. “It undermined a lot of what we’re working for.”
In a statement Tuesday, Bauer said Proguard wasn’t trying to be sneaky with the letter.
“We had no intention of misleading anyone,” Bauer wrote in the statement. “Our sole motivation in sending out this mailer was to disseminate this important potentially life-saving information and inform the public of the fire code amendment.
“We apologize if there was any misunderstanding …”
For about a year, fire officials have been urging owners of alarms to have them inspected and tested per International Fire Code rules, Lathrop said. The Fire Department routinely receives false alarms and sometimes misses calls because alarms don’t work, he said.
However, the Proguard letter didn’t present that information the way the Fire Department would have, Lathrop said.
“It just comes across as threatening,” he said. “It’s not the way we would have conveyed this information.”
In addition, he said he was “disappointed” the letter came from a company the Fire Department deals with almost daily.
The letter begins with a sentence written in red capital letters and highlighted in yellow stating that it is a “final notice of changes, action required.” It is addressed to “all citizens with monitored alarm systems and all alarm service providers” and says it is a “final notice” about “alarm policy adjustments within our fire district.”
It then presents a new amendment to the fire code, which states that alarm companies cannot legally monitor a fire-protection system that has not been inspected, tested and properly maintained. However, the language in the letter is different from the actual code amendment that was adopted, which states that alarm companies cannot legally notify emergency dispatchers of a fire alarm signal from a non-tested alarm, Lathrop said.
Area alarm companies knew April 1 that the amendment presented in the Proguard letter was going to be changed, he said.
“It was a major talking point,” Lathrop said.
The next paragraph in the Proguard letter is written in red capital letters and underlined.
“If you do not have a test and inspection of your alarm system prior to July 1, 2016, the Aspen Fire Department will not respond to activated life-safety devices, with the exception of carbon monoxide alarms, by order of the Aspen fire marshal,” it states.
The paragraph “is kind of cherry-picking” the rules, Lathrop said. While it’s true that firefighters will not respond to a signal from a smoke or fire detector in an alarm system that hasn’t been recently tested and inspected by July 1, they will certainly respond to a person calling to report smoke or a fire, he said.
Balentine said that paragraph in particular prompted “dozens and dozens of calls” from people who were concerned that firefighters wouldn’t respond to emergencies.
“I felt that it was a bad message for our department (to send),” Balentine said. “The way it was written — it seemed more like a threatening letter than an informational letter.”
Problems with the letter were compounded because Bauer was part of the Fire Department, he said. Officials had to call representatives of other alarm companies and assure them Bauer wasn’t receiving special treatment because he was a volunteer firefighter, Balentine said.
Jeff Fain, a detective with the Aspen Police Department, said Balentine asked him to look into the incident, which could be construed as felony forgery of a government document. That’s because on first glance, the letter appears to be from the fire marshal, he said.
However, when Fain looked closely at the letter, which doesn’t contain Lathrop’s actual signature, and the other information that came with it — including inspection prices and an inspection contract — he said he concluded it “could go either way.”
“It was close,” Fain said. “If it had (Lathrop’s) signature, I think (the felony) would be there.”
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Peter Arnold’s playing career ended after high school, but his time on the ice continues a few decades later. A longtime USA Hockey official and new Aspen resident, Arnold is searching for the next generation of hockey referees among the youth ranks here in the Roaring Fork Valley.