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eCommunicatorHeaderfor-storyJanuary 15, 2019

Seeing danger through a trained eye


INSPECTION TIME – John Dalen (center) speaks to kitchen staff at a state facility in January about proper fire safety practices. — Photo by John Buttino

John Dalen knows all too well what it is like encountering raging fires and navigating through thick, dark clouds of smoke. He’s spent most of his career in fire service, and for the past five years this PEF member, a fire protection specialist, is part of a team that helps keep New Yorkers free from fatal flames.

He works in the Fire and Life Safety Branch at the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and inspects approximately 90 group homes and 10 colleges on Long Island annually.

Dalen said group home inspections became mandatory in New York after fire spread through the Riverview Individualized Residential Alternative in March, 2009 in Wells, NY. Four of nine people with developmental disabilities who lived there perished.

In January, 2000, two students started a fire as a prank at Seton Hall University. The blaze quickly grew out of control. Three students died and 58 people were injured. One student had third-degree burns on 56 percent of his body and underwent 30 surgeries.

“Due to these incidents, we inspect all colleges and the approximate 7,000 group homes in the state. When we do an inspection, we look at all the documentation including a record of the fire drills, fire evacuation plan, and the alarm and sprinkler systems. We make sure everything is in place and correct, and then do an entire walk-through of the house where we make sure the doors close and latch, and check for fire-safety items such as extension cords,” Dalen said.

“We find things in group homes when we go through the walk-through. We are not there every day, so we see things that people who are there on a daily basis may overlook, such as a couch blocking a door or extensions cords. We look at things from a firefighter’s point of view.”

Statewide network

Dalen said when they find a fire hazard, such as a clogged dryer vent, or other dirt-filled vents, the information is disseminated throughout the state.

“We share the knowledge of what we found, the good things, the hazards and our recommendations to prevent a fire from occurring,” Dalen said.

“Our group has a solid communications network. We talk, share information and bounce questions off our counterparts throughout the state. It is great to have a positive working relationship with everyone. There are no boundaries with us. There may only be eight people in the Long Island office, but I have access to a lot of wealth and information. It’s just a phone call away.

“The biggest thing is every day fire safety. We don’t, as a country, take fire safety as serious as we should. We overlook a lot of things, and we feel safe in our own homes. But that’s where most fires happen.

“Fire happens to anyone. Fire does not discriminate, and people don’t realize that.”

More to the job

When something occurs within the state, such as a major blizzard or a health-related outbreak, the staff at Homeland Security and Emergency Services are trained and equipped to respond and handle difficult situations.

A few years ago, the governor requested that the division investigate homeless shelters in the Bronx.

“Inspectors were sent there for two weeks, and we discovered some interesting things. We were able to help other state agencies take care of problems. One section of a building with numerous violations was closed. Our inspection also resulted in a publication about the different facilities.

“Our entire office also was assigned to go to New York City to perform safe-water system sampling when there was a Legionnaires Disease outbreak. And when Buffalo and surrounding areas received more than six feet of snow, we were able to mobilize and send people to assess buildings to make sure they were safe before allowing people to enter,” Dalen said.

“We are frequently sent to command centers to help with staffing or anything that takes place on a large scale, such as ensuring the proper equipment arrived.

“We are well-rounded with experience and a lot of training. We are a great asset to the state.”

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