Shelly Ehenger, the interim director of the Little Rock Housing Authority, deflects the suggestion that her office might have a motive for stifling investigation into malfunctioning fire alarms there: To protect her husband’s job with the Housing Authority.
Ehenger, who at press time was one of the finalists for the permanent top job at the Housing Authority, is married to Paul Ehenger, director of technical services for the Housing Authority. He reports directly to his spouse.
As head of maintenance, Paul Ehenger is in charge of the annual inspection of smoke alarms at Cumberland Towers, and is responsible for checking smoke detectors whenever maintenance workers enter a resident’s apartment to perform other duties. That puts him in a position of responsibility for problems with the alarms. Several residents of Cumberland Towers have come forward to say their alarms didn’t work when a fire broke out the night of May 5, or worked so late as to make escape from the building impossible. Two residents died in the fire. The Housing Authority has said the alarm system worked properly that night.
The residents who have said alarms didn’t work include Betty Murray, who received an eviction notice from the Housing Authority after coming to the Arkansas Times with her concerns about malfunctioning alarms.
Shelly Ehenger said the maintenance department bears none of the responsibility if smoke detectors failed to operate. Unless there was a work order filed for repairs in those apartments — which would have given maintenance access to those apartments so they could inspect the alarms in the days leading up to the fire — they would have no way of knowing there was a problem, she said. But what about the annual inspections that her husband’s department is supposed to perform? “They would have caught them, because that was part of the inspection,” she said.
Shelly Ehenger said her husband didn’t inspect the alarms, nor did his immediate subordinate. “And there’s another layer underneath him,” she said. Beyond that, she would give only the barest details about their working relationship, refusing to even answer a simple yes or no question as to whether the two were married (though she later said, “I think that fact has been substantiated by the Democrat-Gazette”).
When asked if it was unreasonable to think she might have a motive for covering up malfunctioning alarms, Shelly Ehenger insisted that she alone bore responsibility. “As the interim director of the Housing Authority of the City of Little Rock, I accept all responsibility,” she said. “All responsibility, as [would] any other CEO of any other organization… That goes for anything the site coordinator did, that goes for anything the fire department did, that goes for anything the restoration company did, that goes for anything our receptionist did at that time.”
Not that she thinks the Housing Authority has any shortcomings to apologize for. “Our housing authority has done an excellent, excellent job. I am proud of our employees, I am proud of the fire department, I am proud of the support services that came out, I am very, very pleased with with our responsiveness not only after the fire but before the fire.”
Ehenger said the fire marshal’s report was the first notification she had of disabled smoke alarms — which by some Cumberland Towers residents is a common practice. During her inspection after the fire, Little Rock Fire Marshal Sandra Wesson found several smoke detectors covered with bags, hats and tape, or even unplugged from the supposedly “tamper proof” fixture on the wall.
Ehenger cited the notice LRHA must give residents before entering their apartments in a non-emergency situation as a possible reason why disabled alarms wouldn’t have been found during annual inspections. “We give residents notice that we’re coming in,” Ehenger said. “So even if I had tape or a bag [over the detector] I know that you’re giving me 24 to 48 hours notice before you’re coming in.”
Ehenger disputed the claims of several residents that alarms were covered to avoid accidentally setting them off and thus racking up “points” that can lead to eviction. Ehenger said it is not Housing Authority policy to hand out points for accidentally setting off alarms unless it resulted from a “safety issue.”