As an aggressive spring thunderstorm brewed over Waynesville this March, causing power outages around town, Erika Stansbury received a frantic call from her elderly in-laws who had lost power at their gated apartment complex.
“Grandma’s on oxygen, and she gets very anxious,” Stansbury said. Her mother-in-law gets nervous her oxygen supply will run out if the power stays off too long.
Stansbury and her husband drove across town to pick up the grandparents and let them stay at their home, which still had power. But, when they reached the gated apartment complex on South Main Street, the gate wouldn’t open. No code, no amount of force or no magic words would pry the electric-powered hinges from their closed position.
The problem is not just this single gated community.
Dozens of gated communities pepper the mountainsides of Western North Carolina. Getting through those gates in an emergency has presented a host of problems for the medics, volunteer firemen and law enforcement officers charged with protecting public safety in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.
“It’s a problem. There is no doubt about it,” said Randy Dillard, chief of the Cashiers-Glenville Volunteer Fire Department. “About everywhere we go, we have to deal with one.”
To help mitigate the problem, Haywood and Macon counties have passed standards within the past two years requiring new developments to install gates with fail-safes that allow emergency service officials to gain entry without an access code.
“It’s a life-safety issue,” said Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey, who formerly served as the county’s emergency service director.
However, older communities, like the one Stansbury’s in-laws live in, were built prior to the rule. As with most gated communities, the Stansburys could go around the gate and get inside on foot, but that would mean walking the elderly couple back out through the storm to the van, which they ruled out.
“We could get to grandma, but we had no way to get her to us,” Stansbury said.
So, Stansbury called the emergency maintenance number for the apartments. The man who answered was more than an hour away and did not seem too excited to help, she said. The other maintenance employee was on vacation.
“There wasn’t anyone on-site,” she said.
When her first option failed, Stansbury called the Haywood County Sheriff’s non-emergency number.
A sheriff’s deputy drove to the scene but admitted that he did not know how to open the gate without going to extreme measures such as taking the gate off its hinges or ripping it open — something that emergency services would consider if the blocked path meant the difference between life and death.
Luckily, power was restored as the Stansbury’s discussed the problem with the deputy.
“The power came on. But, we had no way of knowing (that it would),” Stansbury said.
The following day, Stansbury took her concerns to the county fire marshal who said he would call and strongly suggest that the owner of the apartment complex exchange the current gate for a newer model, which includes several fail-safes. But, the fire marshal cannot force the owner to replace it, and to the best of her knowledge, Stansbury said the gate has yet to be changed.
“It upset me. That’s for sure,” Stansbury said.
Bust ‘em down
Ideally, the county’s dispatch office maintains a list of gate codes and can give fire, police or emergency medical services officials the accurate code.
“Dispatch, 99 percent of the time, has the gate code,” said Jimmy Teem, the Macon County Fire Marshal. “We have not had any really big issues with that yet.”
Haywood County’s 911 center likewise keeps a record of all the gate codes in the county. Most communities periodically change their gate codes for security reasons, so county dispatch has the hassle of constantly updating its system with the latest codes for dozens of gated subdivisions. But it seems to work.
“Most are good about calling and letting us know (about code changes),” said Chanda Morgan, 911 supervisor for Haywood County. “We’ve not had any problems getting in.”
Indeed, many communities — if they are diligent about reporting gate code changes to dispatch — never see a hitch.
“To my knowledge, they never had a problem getting in,” said George Escaravage, a resident of The Sanctuary in Waynesville.
Their gates are also equipped with modern fail-safes: they open automatically in a power outage and have a special audio-trigger mechanism that recognizes the sirens of emergency service vehicles.
Other places aren’t so lucky. Cashiers has one of the highest concentrations of gated communities in the area, and emergency services rarely goes a day without getting a call from within a gated community.
“We probably have more gated communities than anywhere in Western North Carolina,” said Cashiers Fire Chief Randy Dillard. “There is no telling how many gates we have.”
Like other counties, Jackson County tries to keep an accurate list of gate codes but relies on homeowners’ associations to provide them.
“Most people are very, very willing to work with us,” Dillard said.
The Cashiers-Glenville volunteer firefighters usually keep a list of codes stored in their personal phones as well. They are sometimes driving to a fire in their own vehicles rather than first going to the fire station and riding in the fire truck.
Many of the volunteers also work in the construction industry, and luckily already know the codes because they are building a house in a particular gated community.
Still, they occasionally encounter a gate they don’t have the code for, and dispatchers have to track down a resident of the community to get a code.
“They change the code, and we don’t know the code,” said Todd Dillard, director of Jackson County’s Emergency Management Office.
In rare cases, the emergency service officers must take the gate off its hinges.
“Usually, we can pull the pins on them,” Randy Dillard said.
Randy Dillard said he did not remember a time when the fire department has to destroy a gate to gain access — such as busting through it with a truck. And, usually, there is time to find out the correct code.
“It’s hard to justify tearing down a $10,000 gate if its not life threatening,” Randy Dillard said.
Unlike Haywood and Macon, Jackson County does not have any standards on its books requiring gates to be equipped with fail-safes, to the chagrin of some.
“Unfortunately, we do not have an ordinance,” said Todd Dillard.
Todd Dillard said that Cashiers is “where we have most of our problems.”
“There have been some delays. Luckily, there has been no loss of life,” Todd Dillard said.
Bold that message
Neighboring Highlands — which also has a high concentration of gated communities and lies across the county line in Macon — has not had as many problems. Highlands is an actual town, with a paid police department, and officers keep an updated list of codes provided by homeowner’s associations.
“All of our gated communities, we have gone and talked to the people in charge of those gates,” said Capt. R.L. Forester of Highlands Police. “So far, we have not had an issues where we could not get into any gated community.”
The police also patrol many of Highlands’ gated communities on a regular basis so they already know the codes. However, if there were a major gate malfunction during a crisis, the police would waste little time.
“We would crash the gate and go in,” Forester said.
Swain County does not have any sort of ordinance or standards either that require gated communities to install fail-safes, but it rarely has troubles.
“When we know there is gates, we ask the homeowners’ association to give us an updated gate code,” said David Breedlove, director of Swain County’s Emergency Services.
The codes are linked in the emergency service’s database of addresses and phone numbers so that it pops up when a resident in a gated community calls. Dispatch then relays the gate code to the right emergency officials as they are en route. Homeowners’ associations are good about keeping dispatch abreast of any changes to their access codes, Breedlove said.
Indeed, that’s the best way to avoid problems: informing their county dispatch of any changes to the code to ensure that when a fire truck or ambulance rolls up to the gate, there won’t be any obstacles standing between them and those who need help.
“If they would keep the 911 center updated … that would be the biggest thing. That would be the words that I would say put in bold,” said Todd Dillard.
A back-up fail-safe many gates now have is an audio activation that recognizes a specific siren call of ambulances and fire trucks to prompt some gates to open. Some of the newer models even allow emergency vehicles without sirens to use their dispatch radios to unlock a gate.
“The radio-controlled are the best way to go because they get all the first responders,” said Randy Dillard, whose fellow volunteer firefighters will arrive on a scene in their personal vehicle.
Other gates have a Knox-Box that sits near the entry. Emergency officials have a key to the box, which holds a master key to the community.
But, if these measures fail or a gate doesn’t have them, emergency management employees assured people that they won’t let a little thing like a gate stand in their way during an urgent situation.
“If they can’t get in the gate and they’ve got a call, they are bound to get in there,” said Teem, the Macon County Fire Marshal. “They will assess the situation (and) they would take the appropriate action — cut a lock, pull it down or whatever.”
Mike Forbis worked for the state fire department for 10 years before recently becoming the fire marshal in Jackson County but would respond to fire alarms in the county during that time. He would sometimes ran into locked gates.
“That is just par for the course for emergency services,” Forbis said.
Several years ago, firefighters had to sit outside the gate of a community where a brushfire was burning until dispatch could find a resident to let them in.
“We had been called to a fire, and when we got there, the front gate was locked,” Forbis said. “And, none of the codes worked.”
It was late fall or wintertime, Forbis recalled, and many of the second-home owners who lived in the subdivision had already left for the season. The dispatcher had to call half a dozen houses before someone answered and opened the gate.
“You had to keep dialing numbers to get somebody to answer,” Forbis said.