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'We want to know what happened' | A closer look at the tragic Ponderosa Pet Resort fire

Angry residents are imploring leaders to better regulate pet boarding facilities. The KVUE Defenders dug into fire safety issues, solutions and what's being done.

GEORGETOWN, Texas — As Emily Jaeger looked through pictures on the phone, she saw the memories frozen in time. It was a time when her family had their dogs, Shoes and Coaster.

“When we got the dogs, he (Emily’s son) didn't know that many words. We basically just said, ‘What do you want to name the dogs?’ And he said, ‘Shoes.’ Then, ‘What about that one?’ And it was a Coaster,” Jaeger said.

Shoes and Coaster were both a Weimaraner and Pointer mix.

They became part of the family when the family needed them most.

“About a month before (buying the dogs), somebody that I loved very much took his own life and it was a really, really hard time. When we saw them (Shoes and Coaster), it was like, ‘You know, we need this. We need this right now, really badly.’ And that's what I think it was. It was just that they brought us an immense amount of comfort,” Jaeger said.

The family had the dogs’ comfort for two years.

“It's just really weird not having them here,” Jaeger said.

Ponderosa Pet Resort Fire

Shoes and Coaster died Sept. 18 along with 73 other dogs in a kennel fire at Ponderosa Pet Resort.

The Georgetown business had no one on staff when the fire started.

No smoke alarms.

No sprinklers.

“At first, it was like at night, every time I closed my eyes. I had really bad pictures of them (Shoes and Coaster) trapped in the crates. Just awful, terrible images,” Jaeger said.

The remains of Shoes, Coaster and the others stayed in the burned out building for two days while investigators searched for the cause of the fire.

Jaeger identified her dogs before cremation.

“Shoes had obviously tried to get out of the crate, desperately, based on the condition of her mouth and face. Her teeth were broken and bloody. There was blood all over.

“I just wasn't expecting it to be as bad as it was. It’s just... Clearly there was an effort to get out,” Jaeger said.

No dog escaped the fire.

“They were so important to us. I'm just sorry that they were alone, that I hate to think that they think we dropped them off and just left them there. And then this happened and they didn't even get to see us. We weren't there for them. We couldn't help them. We couldn't comfort them. It's just hard to think that,” Jaeger said.

The community mourned and vowed to never let this happen again.

City and State Leaders Respond

Leaders with the City of Georgetown asked the public what should change.

The KVUE Defenders found dozens of emails and website forms pushing for change.

Eighty percent of the people writing to the City wanted fire sprinklers.

“The starting point for putting a sprinkler system into one of these facilities is the owner's responsibility to provide a safe environment for the pets. Cost is absolutely a concern in any business decision, but putting sprinklers into a building is an investment as much as it is a cost,” said Jeffrey Shapiro, P.E., fire protection engineer for Lake Travis Fire Rescue and executive director of the Texas Fire Protection Association (TFPA).

He said fire sprinklers offer the best protection and lowers insurance rates.

However, he said governments typically do not force existing businesses to retrofit, mostly due to the cost.

“Governments tend to be very hesitant to provide retroactive regulations to existing buildings, and even in the case of facilities like apartment buildings where people are living, the cost typically is a big factor in a government decision to not require retrofitting existing facilities,” Shapiro said.

Fire sprinklers require a larger water supply and bigger pipes.

City and county infrastructure doesn’t always have a reliable water supply needed for minimum required flow and pressure.

Texas Representative James Talarico filed a bill during the third special session this year to address the issue.

If passed, dog kennels without 24-hour staffing must have fire alarms and sprinklers. 

The bill went nowhere.

“The most important thing for an existing facility would be to have an early alarm, which would be a smoke or fire alarm system that is monitored by a central station that can dispatch the fire department immediately,” Shapiro said.

In the letters to the city, 75% of people mentioned smoke alarms, demanding kennels have a system to notify the fire department immediately and remotely.

Georgetown Fire Chief John Sullivan told the Building Standards Commission where the kennel fire started and how it traveled through the building.

“We know it happened before 10:40 p.m.” Sullivan said.

He said surveillance video showed the fire stayed in one area for at least 12 minutes while smoke and gases rose.

“A lot of those gases heated up and everything went to the top. We know that the animals were largely alive up until that point because of the smoke itself and we actually could see through the video itself that they were pretty much unaffected,” Sullivan said.

No emergency call had been made.

No one knew about the fire until it was too late.

“Then, in the matter of two minutes you saw the smoke go from all the way over from the other side of the building,” Sullivan said.

Using Sullivan's timeline from when the fire started and adding the fire department’s five minute response time, if firefighters were alerted immediately such as via remote fire alarm system, firefighters may have had enough time to get to Ponderosa Pet Resort before the dogs burned.

In response, Georgetown’s Building Standards Commission called on changes to the City’s fire code.

The new code would define animal housing and care facilities, identifying those businesses which kennel animals, including veterinary offices.

The codes would require existing facilities to have a smoke alarm installed with automatic notification to a monitoring company, unless staffed 24/7.

“Automatic sprinkler systems would be required at new facilities, unless the facility installs a fire alarm system with automatic electronic notification to an alarm company and fire-resistant interior materials,” the Georgetown city website shows.

If passed, Sullivan said 26 businesses in Georgetown would be impacted.

The city council is expected to decide in January 2022.

What Business Owners Can Do

“The pets cannot escape on their own. They are truly dependent on us for ensuring that they're in a safe environment,” Vickie Pritchett, Executive Officer for National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) said.

Pritchett said now is the best time for business owners to install sprinklers.

Small business owners can get a 100% tax deduction for costs associated with retrofitting buildings with fire sprinklers by the end of 2022.

Take a look at the NFSA tax incentive guide here. 

“What it basically does is it allows the business owner under Section 179 to realize a tax credit that allows them to write off the cost of retrofitting their business with fire sprinklers that very next year. In the old tax code, it had a depreciation schedule. It was listed like plumbing, and so it was a 39-year depreciation schedule. So that would take forever. By being able to realize this the following year is truly an incentive that has many business owners taking a second look at improving their fire and life safety features and upgrading those systems so that they can protect their business, stay in business,” Pritchett said.

Affected Families File a Lawsuit

The Jaeger family moved to Boerne, Texas, shortly after the fire.

Jaeger said they picked a home with her dogs, Shoes and Coaster, in mind.

“We made sure they had a big yard to run, because they were a part of our family,” Jaeger said.

The dogs never saw the new home.

They never played in the backyard.

“The house is quiet and weird. It's just unusual to not have the little feet running around, to hear the paws and the collars,” Jaeger said.

The family recently rescued two kittens.

Jaeger said she doesn’t know when they’ll get another dog.

If she ever needs to board her pets, she says she’ll make sure someone is on site 24 hours a day and a smoke alarm is monitored.

Jaeger and nearly two dozen other families filed suit against the owner of Ponderosa Pet Resort.

Read the full lawsuit here.

“We want answers, we don't want this to be swept under the rug. We want to know what happened. We want to know why it happened and how we can prevent it from happening and to have this lawsuit. You know, hopefully we can kind of spur some change,” Jaeger said.

“This lawsuit is a message from my clients, the owners of the pets– the pets that died needlessly– to anyone who operates a kennel, to anyone who operates anything remotely resembling a kennel or veterinarian office to take the time to make sure to have smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, any sort of precautions that can be taken to avoid the needless tragedies that we see all across the country. That's the main message that we're trying to send. For anyone out there who is in any sort of position of power to prevent these kinds of losses, we're hoping that you do the right thing,” Ard Ardalan, attorney at Ardalan Law Firm PLLC said.

Ardalan represents the Jaeger family.

Jaeger said she hopes the lawsuit will help stop others from feeling what she feels.

“I feel like I failed them (Shoes and Coaster), you know, like I should have known better. I know it's crazy to think that on some level, but at the same point, I didn't ask the questions. I didn't. I didn't. I just assumed that this is a kennel that's been operating, and that it's safe. So I'm very sorry that I took them there. I'm very sorry.

“I’ve kind of gone into this anxiety spiral. If I can't protect my dogs, how am I going to protect my kids? I've kind of gone to this worst case scenario for everything.”

“We miss our girls. We miss our dogs a lot, and we love them. We miss them and we are very, very sorry to them. I hope this doesn't happen again to anybody,” Jaeger said.

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