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House Fire Leaves One Family Full of Gratitude, With Lessons to Share

The Albany Fire Department said this local mom did nearly everything right in the face of an emergency. Hear her tips here. Click "Keep me posted" below for alerts when we write about Albany fires.

At 1:30 a.m., Courteney Coolidge woke up to the smell of something burning.

"I thought, oh my god, where's that toast smell coming from?" she said. 

Her two sons, ages 6 and 8, were sleeping in their room, in the home the family of three shares on Evelyn Avenue. 

Coolidge jumped out of bed and ran into the kitchen but saw nothing amiss. She headed toward the back bedroom, where the smell got stronger and stronger. Looking outside, through a set of gauzy curtains, she discovered the source of the smell. 

"I saw this big red thing out my window," she said. "There were six-foot flames coming out of the in-law unit. It was really shocking, because it was really big. It just seemed really big." 

The uninhabited in-law unit is just 10 steps from her home. She tried to use her landline to call for help but couldn't get a dial tone. 

"Then I started panicking," she said. She grabbed her cell phone and tried to find a signal. Ultimately she had to go into the middle of the street to call 911. 

She reported the fire, then ran back into her children's room and told her sons they had to wake up. 

"'The fire trucks are coming and we all need to be out of the house,'" she told them. She ran to the front door and put her two dogs on their leashes, which she keeps hanging by the front door. She got her boys into their coats and shoes, also right by the door, and the group trooped outside. 

(She later added, in a comment to this story, "I perceived there to be enough time to call and then wake the kids. If our house had been on fire, you can bet I would have left with the kids and dogs first and called 911 second.")

As soon as she stepped outside, she said, she realized her car was in the driveway, and that firefighters wouldn't be able to get into the backyard easily as a result. So she moved her car into the street, then went back to her dogs and sons on the front porch. 

She then remembered that her side gate was locked with a combination lock, which she couldn't see in the darkness: "It was night, and I couldn't read it. I had no idea where my glasses were." 

By that time, had arrived and they were able to get into the backyard through the other side of her house. One Albany officer turned on the garden hose and began putting water on the flames. 

"There was this feeling of relief that somebody had thought to put water on the fire," she said. "It didn't even occur to me to put the fire out." 

She said a firefighter later told her it would have been a bad idea had she tried, because the power cable to the main house was connected to the in-law unit, and could have been compromised. Had the unit's roof come down, the cable could have collapsed into the water, causing even more chaos and potential injuries. 

Three fire trucks arrived she said. Their lights were flashing but they didn't have sirens on. "It sounded like a bonfire. Normally for me that's such a happy peaceful sound. The stars were out and there were six-foot flames coming out of this building... It wasn't as ominous as it felt like it should be."

"It was the most eerie experience," she continued, "because the fire was so quiet. It was 1:30 in the morning and I kept thinking, am I imagining this?" 

Eventually she went to sit on her neighbor's porch. She said police officers "were also amazing," keeping an eye on her sons and holding the leashes of her dogs while she called her landlord. 

"Everybody was just incredibly helpful and really reassuring and very communicative," she said. The lead firefighter gave her regular updates about what was happening throughout the Jan. 21 blaze. The team was there until 4:30 or 5 a.m., she said, airing the house out with a fan and making sure everything was safe for them to return.  

She said the fire might have started because of flammable liquids in the in-law unit. (She added that she did not have access to the unit because it was only in use by her landlord.)

"We're just really lucky nothing in there exploded," she said. "Whatever it was that started had been burning for a long time before it got to that level of destruction."

Coolidge said she later bought 10 filet mignon steaks to take to the firehouse and police to thank them for their efforts. 

"I just wanted to say 'thank you,' for the safety of my children, the safety of my family, my dogs, myself," she said. "I was really happy to live in a place where both the police and firefighters would be so responsive. I know it's their job. But it's different when it happens to you. It just didn't seem like baking cookies would be enough of a 'thank you.'"

When she and her sons dropped off the steaks, the firefighters who helped her in January took her family for a ride on a firetruck.

Capt. Jay Jorgensen of the said Coolidge, a local photographer, had been "just terrific" the night of the fire, and that most of her actions should serve as an example to others who find themselves in an emergency.

He shared two main tips for the public:

  • Access to the yard and around the exterior of the house is important, but make sure to keep the doors and windows shut so as not to feed the fire. A closed door can often prevent a fire from growing in size and severity. It gives the Fire Department time to respond and react. Above all, never jeopardize your safety with your actions.
  • Never go back into a burning house. (That's not what happened in this case, but the Fire Department wanted to make clear the public understands this.) Your initial actions are to escape the fire while assisting other members of the family (pets included) with exiting. Calling 911 while inside of a burning building is not the priority… Call from a neighbor’s house if need be.

In the end, Coolidge said, she guessed what had been helpful had been getting out of the house, moving her car and trying to make it easy for authorities to access the backyard. Having easily accessible shoes, coats and dog leashes helped her move quickly. And, though she felt guilty for not doing more, she said, authorities convinced her that leaving the firefighting to them had been the right decision.

"Swing everything open (outside) that can be humanly opened," she said, in reference to gates and other outdoor access points. "Then just get the heck out of the way so firefighters can do everything else," 

Coolidge also said she was left with frustration about how hard it had been to call for help. She said she has AT&T's U-Verse service, in which phone and internet lines are bundled into a single cable. 

"If that one cable is affected, you have nothing," she said. "My landline was gone and my cell phone didn't work. It definitely was a wake-up call. It seriously made me consider switching over to Verizon. I know it's been controversial, putting up a cell tower. People think it's a health issue. I get it. But it's also a public safety issue."

Click "Keep me posted" for an email alert when we cover structure fires issues in Albany.

If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated after it initially was published to include some additional information from the Fire Department about what to do in an emergency, and from Coolidge about her thoughts the night of the fire.

Craig Westbrooke April 06, 2012 at 02:22 PM
stories like this have to move the Albany cell phone issue to the top of the list. As a survivor of two house fires, and with ATT phone service, this story brings back chilling memories.
Brian Parsley April 06, 2012 at 03:00 PM
"She tried to use her landline to call for help but couldn't get a dial tone. Then I started panicking, she said. She grabbed her cell phone and tried to find a signal. Ultimately she had to run into the middle of the street to call 911." I guess P&Z and our regressive City Council would prefer to have a mother and her two children burn to death, clutching there useless cell phone, than join the rest of the 21st century by allowing AT&T and other cell phone providers the right to upgrade current equipment and provide coverage. Well at least they wouldn't have been bombarded with RF waves or had to look at unsightly cellular equipment as they gasped for air in a smoked filled house. "We're dying, can you hear me now!"
Don Ford April 06, 2012 at 03:14 PM
Well...I'll try to be a little less dramatic than Parsley but first... Congratulations to Courteney Coolidge for quick thinking and getting out of the house pronto! However, Parsley is exactly right. The nonsense of delaying cell coverage in Albany needs to come to an end. We are beyond the Horse and buggy days, it's time to pave the streets.
Jane Tierney April 06, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Well said and agreed.
Ross Stapleton-Gray April 06, 2012 at 05:55 PM
We have U-Verse, but AT&T had to reconnect the standard phone line (so the latter handles our phone, the former the Internet connection) because Sarah couldn't log in to conference calls (U-Verse seems to distort the phone tones so that conference bridges won't recognize them accurately). But now I'm thinking it's good that we've got cell phones (on very reliably-connecting Verizon) as a first resort...
Paul D April 06, 2012 at 06:39 PM
The Pee & ZZZZ commission should be called on the carpet to apologize for creating a public risk situation for all of us. Has government ego-driven paralysis even reached Albany?
Stephanie Travis April 06, 2012 at 07:49 PM
I know next to nothing about communication issues but I believe putting up a cell tower in Albany would not completely solve the issue of quickly getting emergency services through the use of any cell phone service. I believe it is still the case that all emergency cell phone calls go through one service center in Vallejo. Because of the heavy amount of traffic going through that one center, it takes a long time to get through. I once called 911 on my cell phone in Oakland and it took 20 minutes to get the police. Due to response delays, San Francisco was considering setting up its own emergency call center in the City, thereby allowing 415 calls on cell phones to get quicker emergency service. I don’t know the current status of that effort. Of course if you can’t get a signal to begin with, it doesn’t matter how busy the emergency center may be. In case of emergency it is always good to have a landline for a non-portable phone in a residence. They don’t have the problem of a single service center and, unlike portable phones, they don’t require the use of electricity.
Peggy McQuaid April 06, 2012 at 08:15 PM
I believe cell phone 911 calls made in Albany now go directly to the Albany Police dispatcher.
emr April 06, 2012 at 09:22 PM
Peggy is correct. 911 calls made in Albany now go right to APD. This change took place last year.
ralph April 06, 2012 at 10:11 PM
I wonder how well cell phone 911 routing works near the borders of our tiny towns. If you are near the border of El Cerrito, Kensington Richmond, or Berkeley, will your 911 call possibly get routed to a neighboring town? Is it just based on which tower your call goes to? Not every phone has gps.
emr April 07, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Via the police chief: "I’m not sure of the science, but I do know that it is an imperfect system. I believe it can use either GPS (if your phone is enabled) or triangulation from nearby towers if not. It is quite possible that a call made near the city border will be directed out of Albany. Nevertheless, I suspect a local agency will typically be able to transfer that call back to Albany’s 911 dispatcher much faster than the CHP Vallejo call center."
Bronwyn Eisenberg April 07, 2012 at 03:35 AM
I'm puzzled by one thing, though. Shouldn't she get the kids out first before calling the fire department? I'm open to hearing the best approach, whatever it is.
George Johnson April 07, 2012 at 03:43 AM
I have to comment about AT&T. They are rated the worst by Consumer Reports for a reason. They dropped my calls all the time and when there was a big delay on the bay bridge I had to redial constantly in stopped traffic for me to not get a "all circuits busy" message. When I moved to Albany, we had terrible coverage in the house and the family switched to T-Mobile and have not regretted it. Unlock your phone and get a $7 pre-paid SIM and see what works for you, I don't see why my family's safety (or convenience) should be blamed on anybody when there are so many options out there.
Michael Barnes April 07, 2012 at 04:05 AM
The first point is about fire safety. Make sure you have the recommended number and type of smoke alarms, including a carbon monoxide detector. And make sure you change the batteries every year. I believe it is best to get everyone away from the fire first, then worry about calling fire dept. While a land line might get a better connection, I think the fire department would tell you never reenter a burning building. Toxic fumes can build up that you may not be able to detect, rendering you unconscious. You local fire dept. can provide you with more information, or you can try this link: http://www.nfpa.org/.
Jane April 07, 2012 at 04:13 AM
I thought the same thing. It's sure and hell not the way I would have done it. I am glad she and her family are safe. But seriously running to into the middle of the street when there is a fire is near the back of your home and leaving two small kids in it seem dangerous and foolish to me. And how many times did she reenter the home? twice? I always was taught that you NEVER re`enter the home. Please don't make this about a cell tower. What was the real reason this fire happen? it was definitely not because of lack of cell services. Did you have chemical in the shed? And why is it being reported now? This is so old. *Like how the police held the leashes of your dogs and watch the kids* did they get any steak?
Michael Barnes April 07, 2012 at 04:18 AM
Now, about the cell phone issues. Switching carriers is not a solution. I switched from AT&T to Verizon, and my reception is better. But Verizon is now suing Albany because the company has not been allowed to upgrade its equipment on the monopole just south of El Cerrito Plaza. Most Verizon reception in Albany is provided by that monopole. If the site there does not work properly, Verizon cell phones will cease to work as well. Or if customers drop other carriers in favor of Verizon, Verizon's equipment will be overloaded, reducing the quality of their coverage. Depending upon where you live in Albany, you may get better coverage from a particular carrier. But that isn't the point, since you never know where an emergency will occur, you can't know what provider to pick, or whether the provider will be able to upgrade equipment under the city's absurd cell ordinance. That is why the city is being sued by Verizon. AT&T has been trying for four years to get a new cell site in the city. The responsibility for poor coverage in Albany rests squarely with the city council. If you are concerned about the public safety implications of poor cell phone coverage, please contact the city council and let them know your concerns.
Emilie Raguso April 07, 2012 at 04:49 AM
Unfortunately it's old because I was busy with other things, but the lessons are good lessons anytime. The Fire Department had nothing but good things to say about her actions -- I assume they had a much better vantage point than any of us. Finally -- I can only guess that it was clear to her that the fire was not an immediate danger due to the distance, and that someone needed to call for emergency help immediately-- and she was the only one who could do it. That's my take.
Courteney Coolidge April 07, 2012 at 07:03 AM
Just a note to clarify... The in law unit that caught on fire was used as a locked storage shed by the landlord. I had no access to the unit nor did I know what was being stored in there (beyond furniture). As a new renter, it never occurred to me that a landlord might have things stored in closets out there that could jeopardize the safety of his own property and my family. The reason I called 911 first was that our house was not on fire. The fire was in our backyard and I didn't want it to spread, but I perceived there to be enough time to call and then wake the kids. If our house had been on fire, you can bet i would have left with the kids and dogs first and called 911 second. Ps. Both the police and fire department crews were given steaks!
Michael Barnes April 07, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Courtney, Thanks for the clarification, good work and we're glad you all are OK. No reason to second guess this sentiment, from above: Capt. Jay Jorgensen of the Albany Fire Department said Coolidge, a local photographer, had been "just terrific" the night of the fire, and that her actions should serve as an example to others who find themselves in an emergency. I would urge you to contact the city council and let them know about your story and your concerns about cell phone reception and public safety. Years ago when my son was in middle school, he came home to find our house had been broken in to. He called me, I told him to immediately leave the house and call the police from his cell phone. Good thing he was able to go outside, since if he had been trapped inside, perhaps hiding in a closet from a burgler, the cell phone wouldn't have worked.
Rebecca Nemeth April 08, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Interesting that people are choosing to make this about the right of one cell phone company to build things that promote its own business. It's not like they're the only provider available. It strikes me that there are much more basic and pragmatic lessons here for emergencies. - It's wise to be prepared (with gear, knowledge of your environment like that locked fence and how/where your utilities work, how long it may take help to arrive) -It's foolish (and maybe illegal?) to store flammable or toxic things in a locked space, or at least warn others what's they might be dealing with - Phones of ANY kind may not work in an emergency, regardless of who provides the service. Short of ham radio or military satellite phones, IT'S SEEMS UNLIKELY MOST OF US WILL HAVE PHONE SERVICE during a more widespread emergency. Since when is it a local governments job to ensure that a particular brand of any service, including phones, have any unregulated access they want, and have so much that phones work in every inch of town, Tilden Park, etc.?
ralph April 09, 2012 at 06:16 PM
This is another reason Albany should take a more active role in inspecting rental property. I have rented two different houses in Albany, and in both cases, the landlord delivered the property with flammable and toxic chemicals left on site. In the case of this fire, stuff stored by the landlord caught on fire. In my case, one house came equipped with a bottle of malathion, paint thinner, and the other one had many containers of oil from car repairs. Rental inspections can save lives.
David Sanger April 09, 2012 at 06:27 PM
@Rebecca, the answer to your question is since 1996. The Telecommunication Act requires local governments to allow access to wireless carriers. "Title 47 Section 253 - Removal of barriers to entry (a)No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service."
John Doh! April 10, 2012 at 12:55 AM
My guess is that the issue of AT&T lack of reception is not as simple as the city council is violating a federal law. And, if the Verizon lawsuit is a clear-cut loser for the city, either the last City Attorney, or the new one, would have settled (2 legal opinions for the price of 1.) It's not like the city council will just do whatever a big company wants- unless the company is UC;-) Someone brought up the fact that, in the past, AT&T sold a tower (or more,) to T-Mobile. AT&T coverage is lacking throughout the country, from Albany NY, to Albany, CA. I also agree that land lines are important to have for emergencies. This town is small enough to know your neighbors and local businesses. Borrow their landline like we did last century.
emr April 10, 2012 at 05:25 AM
Folks, after speaking with Capt. Jorgensen about this story, he offered several additional thoughts about public safety. I have updated the story, and will add a clarification to it as well. * Access to the yard and around the exterior of the house is important, but make sure to keep the doors and windows shut so as not to feed the fire. A closed door can often prevent a fire from growing in size and severity. It gives the Fire Department time to respond and react. Above all, never jeopardize your safety with your actions. * Never go back into a burning house. (That's not what happened in this case, but the Fire Department wanted to make clear the public understands this.) Your initial actions are to escape the fire while assisting other members of the family (pets included) with exiting. Calling 911 while inside of a burning building is not the priority… Call from a neighbor’s house if need be.
emr April 11, 2012 at 08:43 AM
Interesting to note, Metro PCS, Sprint PCS, T‐Mobile, Verizon and Nextel are all on board with diverting 911 calls in Albany to the Albany police dispatcher. Currently AT&T has no automatic cell call diversion to the 911 center (via the police chief in response to a question from a reader). Make sure to program your local PD dispatch number into your phone... for Albany, it's 510-525-7300.
Michael Barnes April 11, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Emilie, Is this due to fact that AT&T currently doesn't have a cell site in Albany, or is this due to some general company policy that applies in other places as well? AT&T does have a site at El Cerrito Plaza, Just north of the Albany border, where they have a store. Given the number of small cities that converge on Albany's NE border (Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito and Kensington), I suspect it's difficult to try to sort out where calls on the borders are coming from and route to correct PD (as you mentioned earlier). I would expect that if and when the 1035 San Pablo application if approved, and that site is up an running for AT&T and its customers, that calls received there would be routed to Albany PD.
emr April 11, 2012 at 10:44 PM
Via APD: The last communication from AT&T was April 10 and they said they do not have any active sites within Albany boundaries; the one site that was planned to be turned up was canceled. * I can try to learn more if there's interest.

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