Meeting held at Sawtooth Ridges to discuss recent scare

Brian Larsen

Cook County Emergency Management director Valerie Marasco talked with residents of Sawtooth Ridges Apartments following the meeting she led to discuss some confusion over a recent problem with an evacuation at the apartments. 
Staff photo/Brian Larsen Cook County Emergency Management director Valerie Marasco talked with residents of Sawtooth Ridges Apartments following the meeting she led to discuss some confusion over a recent problem with an evacuation at the apartments. Staff photo/Brian Larsen A meeting held on Wednesday, April 11 at Sawtooth Ridges Apartments with members of Cook County Law Enforcement, Cook County Social Services, Cook County office of emergency management, Superior Fuel, and Grand Marais Fire Department was conducted to discuss a recent incident that scared and confused some of the residents.

On March 10 at 8 a.m. a call came into Cook County Law Enforcement reporting a smell of rotten eggs permeating some of the building.

The on-duty manager contacted Cook County Law Enforcement, and a deputy came to assist the residents who believed there was a propane leak. Superior Fuel, which provides propane for the two-story building, was also notified as was the Grand Marais volunteer fire department.

An evacuation took place, with the sheriff ’s deputy enlisting some of the residents to assist him. It wasn’t a smooth evacuation. Some of the residents are heavy sleepers and were hard to arouse from their slumber. There was some confusion during the process until Superior Fuel personnel arrived and determined that there wasn’t a propane leak and there was no danger of having an explosion. At that time the residents who went outside were let back in.

Addressing the foul odor that caused alarm, Ryan Gunderson of Superior Fuel said the rotten egg smell was the result of a chemical put in propane—which is odorless— that allows people to detect a propane leak.

In this case, said Gunderson, the propane tank had run out of propane, and the chemical had settled in the bottom of the tank with the odor leaking through the open orifice in the furnace as the furnace attempted to get fuel.

“What you were smelling was essentially a stinky perfume,” Gunderson said. “It’s not toxic, and it’s not explosive.”

Why did the tank go empty? Gunderson was asked.

Although Sawtooth Ridges is on a “keep full,” and is hooked up with a monitor that gives Superior Fuel daily readings, the outside line had been partially severed, giving Superior Fuel a false reading about how much propane was in the tank.

Gunderson said the company was adding a second monitoring line, which should stop this problem from happening again.

As to the evacuation, Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen said the deputy who handled the call was new, and things could have been dealt with a little differently, although he wasn’t critical of the deputy.

Eliasen suggested the next time there was a need to alert residents to leave the building a good way to do that was by pulling a fire alarm. The fire alarms don’t trigger a sprinkler system or any other type of fire suppressant so that no damage would come to the building. Not only would it be quicker, but also residents who sleep hard would be awakened by the alarm and know to leave the building.

Ben Silence, the Grand Marais volunteer fire chief, said he would have reacted the way the deputy had and would have tried to enlist volunteers to help clear out the building. He told the residents it is always a good idea to evacuate quickly, and not to wait for help if they didn’t need it. “As you saw, it takes us awhile to get here,” he said.

Silence also said it would be beneficial if people could leave a sign on their doors that lets the firefighters and emergency workers know that the room is empty.

Coordinating the meeting was Valerie Marasco, Cook County director of emergency management and public relations.

As people asked questions, Marasco kept track of responses at the front of the room on a large white sheet of paper. At the beginning of the meeting, she instructed those in attendance, “This is not a finger pointing exercise. This is to review procedures and protocols.”

When the meeting was over, the residents thanked the speakers, and Missy Bloomquist, Sawtooth Ridges program director, who was in Siren, Wisconsin the day the incident occurred, agreed to work on emergency procedures and protocols with the residents.

Sawtooth Ridges

Sawtooth Ridges Apartments is located at 701 W. 5th street in Grand Marais.

The facility is financed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and includes a rent-subsidy program. Tenants pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for rent, and the federal government pays the remainder.

To qualify for residency, you must be 62 years of age or older. Tenants must be able to comply with the lease requirements and residents must be capable of independent living, although it was noted that “independent” doesn’t mean some residence won’t require assistance at times.

Sawtooth Ridges is part of the Ebenezer chain. Ebenezer is Minnesota’s largest senior living operator with 100 years of experience serving older adults.

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