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Quality, quantity of fire inspections vary in greater Portland

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Quality, quantity of fire inspections vary in greater Portland

Some Maine towns, cities inspect regularly, some only respond to complaints

BRUNSWICK — For three years, Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson tried to get the owners of 45 Maine St., destroyed by fire on April 17, to correct multiple fire and life-safety problems in their building.

He may not have discovered the violations if it were not for a small cooking fire that occurred in one of the building's apartments in February 2008. The firefighters who responded to the fire reported back to Emerson, who inspected the building and found several code violations.

Emerson was previously unaware of the violations because the Brunswick Fire Department does not proactively inspect apartment buildings. It only responds to complaints, or acts on tips about safety problems.

This is the case in many Maine towns, especially those with smaller fire departments that have few or no full-time staff and rely largely on volunteer firefighters. Municipalities with larger populations and fire departments are more likely to have set aside funds for fire inspectors.

"We can only do so much," said Topsham Fire Chief Brian Stockdale, whose department does not do proactive inspections of apartment buildings. Stockdale inspects new residences when they receive their certificates of occupancy, but after that, he can only respond to complaints, something he finds worrisome.

"There are buildings with issues that we'd like to take care of, but at this point, unless I'm made aware of them or I come across them, they're probably going to stay out of my sight until that happens," he said.

'There is no norm'

Because the state doesn't keep track of town inspectors, it's hard to generalize about who has them and who doesn't, said Tim Fuller, a inspector for the state fire marshal's office.

"There is no norm, it's so varied," he said.

There is no state law requiring municipalities like Topsham, Brunswick, Yarmouth and Freeport – or the state fire marshal – to regularly inspect apartment buildings.

But some towns and cities have written their own ordinances that require anywhere from biannual to semi-annual inspections of the hallways and common areas of buildings (firefighters cannot inspect private apartments).

In Portland and South Portland, the fire departments will inspect every apartment building of three units or larger at least once a year.

"Inspecting is huge, it's our No. 1 priority," said South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond. "We do (multi-unit apartment buildings) because that's where our life hazard is."

Over a quarter of the more than 10,900 housing units in South Portland and 30 percent of the more than 32,000 units in Portland have three or more apartments, according to the American Community Survey, so a large number of people are served by the inspections.

But towns like Cumberland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, which have far fewer apartments, also make it a priority to do proactive inspections of their multi-unit buildings.

In Cumberland, where only 1.2 percent of the nearly 2,900 housing units have three or more apartments, the Fire Department does biannual inspections in spite of having a mostly volunteer department.

"The Cumberland Fire Department is very fortunate to have several personnel, that range from full-time to on-call, that possess advanced levels of training and experience with ensuring code compliance," Fire Chief Dan Small said in an email.

Scarborough's Fire Department has two part-time staffers who annually inspect the town's three-unit or larger apartment buildings, which make up 7.7 percent of the more than 8,400 housing units in town.

"Scarborough years ago set a precedent that fire prevention is equal to suppression," said Capt. Rob Carson, a part-time inspector and former chief of the department.

But he acknowledged that the town's ability to do those inspections comes down to cost. Capt. David Jackson, the other half of Scarborough's inspection division, said that splitting the job of inspector into two part-time positions allowed the town to save money by not having to hire an inspector with a salary and benefits.

"We've always been extremely proactive as we've been able to, but the bottom line is it all comes down to cost," Jackson said.

Bath Fire Chief Stephen Hinds said cost has affected his department's ability to do inspections as well. Bath only regularly inspects the multi-unit apartment buildings downtown. In the rest of the city, he relies on complaints, because "we just don't have the staff."

He said that when faced with budgetary constraints, many fire departments are forced to choose between firefighters and inspectors, and they often chose to cut inspectors.

He justified this choice because he said cutting firefighters would mean calling neighboring fire departments for help more often, something that would prolong response times and lead to more damaging fires.

But many fire chiefs who already cut their inspectors, or who never had one in the first place, said they wished they had someone to do proactive inspections of multi-unit apartment buildings.

Emerson said he has been requesting a fire inspector in Brunswick for the past five years, and each time his request doesn't even make it into the first draft of the town budget. And while he wouldn't go so far as to say it's a problem that the town doesn't have an inspector, he said the fact that he's been asking for one speaks for itself.

Improving training

Some municipalities are taking steps towards a greater emphasis on fire prevention. Chiefs from the greater Portland area have gotten together and applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to improve the training of municipal fire inspectors.

"We want the inspectors to all be working on the same level," said Falmouth Assistant Fire Chief Doug Patey. Currently, municipal fire inspectors in Maine have a wide range of training, he said, from National Fire Prevention Association certifications to on the job training. He said there is also a wide range of familiarity with the fire code, meaning some inspectors are conducting more detailed inspections than others.

"We need to be more consistent and we need to get into the details," he said.

Although the FEMA grant could improve training for existing inspectors, it won't allow departments to hire additional staff to do inspections.

But Patey said he hoped that interested volunteer firefighters would sign up for the fire inspector certification courses he hopes to offer and integrate inspections into their volunteer service.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.