News > Local Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008


Posted on Fri, Jan. 25, 2008

Rescuers trying to reach Shell Beach woman having heart attack delayed when power outage makes gate to community inoperable


By AnnMarie Cornejo


A black wreath hangs on the gate to Calle Consuetta off Mattie Road in Pismo Beach. Joyce Cotton died of a heart attack in the gated community earlier this month.

Click any image to enlarge.

A memorial service for Joyce Cotton will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the New Life Community Church at 990 James Way in Pismo Beach.

In early January, during the height of a powerful storm that battered the Central Coast and left thousands of homes without power, a 75-year-old Shell Beach woman was having difficulty breathing.

But rescuers responding to a 911 call that night couldn’t get inside Joyce Cotton’s gated community because the power outage made the gate inoperable.

They lost at least five minutes while her son dashed over to let them in the pedestrian gate.

They hauled their equipment on their backs and used flashlights to guide the way. By the time they got to her home, Cotton had died of an apparent heart attack.

“When I first saw the flashing lights below, I thought everything was going to be OK,” said Daryl Cotton, her son. “But I realized they couldn’t get in the gate.What if they had just been able to get there?”

In this particular case, emergency-response officials don’t believe it would have made a difference.

But the incident raised an important issue for more than a dozen gated communities throughout San Luis Obispo County, as well as gated private residences.

Many people who live in those places are drawn to the sense of security and exclusivity. But in an emergency situation, that added sense of protection can turn into an added risk.

Safety backups available

Most cities in San Luis Obispo County require that some safety devices—such as a Knox-Box Rapid Entry System—be included during the installation of electronic gates at communities.

Knox-Boxes are small mounted safes that contain a key to community gates, buildings or other enclosures. Emergency responders have master keys that can open those boxes.

Newer gates can be outfitted with a battery backup that kicks on when the power fails. It is up to a homeowners association or landowner to provide for such a backup because it’s not legally required.

The homeowners association for the Spyglass Village Villas where Cotton lived could not be reached for comment on whether that community’s gate has a battery backup.

“These gates are usually to give residents a sense of security and that is great. But when security keeps those who need to get in, out, the purpose is defeated,” said Pismo Beach/Cal Fire Capt. Bill Grundler, who responded to the call.

When the power fails, other safety measures need to be in place, fire officials said.

“Luckily, we don’t face situations like this very often,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Robert Lewin said. “But it only has to happen once to be a concern.”

Scott Holmes, owner of Advanced Access Automation in Paso Robles, only manufactures gates that include the battery backup.

“One of the biggest concerns for anyone in the industry is making sure that we are eliminating any delays,” Holmes said.

At the Heritage Ranch gated community in the North County, General Manager Linda Richey made sure that such a safety measure was included.

“We have power outages all the time,” Richey said. “If anyone would have gate problems, it would be us.”

The gate there — leading to one of several subdivisions in the community — has a battery that automatically opens the gate if the main power source fails, she said.

The added cost can sway a customer from purchasing the extra protection, said Seth Montgomery, a manager with Perimeter Security Systems in Pismo Beach.

“I always offer every safety device and battery backup device there is,” Montgomery said. “But I can’t twist their arm to buy it.”

Questions sill unanswered

In an emergency, every second counts.

“Seventy percent of our calls are for medical aid,” said Laura Brown, a fire inspector with Cal Fire. “Delays of a few seconds can mean the difference of life or death.”

Ultimately, it is up to private property owners to make sure access is not an issue.

“We don’t have a requirement for battery backup or solar power, but obviously it is up to the people living behind that gate to make sure we can get in if the power is out,” Brown said.

For now, Daryl Cotton is left questioning why the gate failed —and ultimately, whether his mother would still be alive if it had not.

He describes his mother as kind, welcoming and loved by many.

“If you have a mom, call and tell her that you love her,” Cotton said. “Because you never know what each day will bring.”

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