Portland Fire Department builds compliance with revamped inspection program

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PORTLAND — From the basement of the three-unit apartment building at 85 Morning St. to the top floor, Portland Fire Department Capts. David Petruccelli and John Brennan found safety violations July 13.

All could be easily remedied, although installing new fire-rated doors could take some time.

“Rarely do we run into a situation where we fear for the safety of the tenants,” Petruccelli said following the 30-minute inspection.

What is found, and how it is recorded and remedied, is part of the revised inspection methodology Assistant Fire Chief Keith Gautreau explained July 12 for the City Council Housing Committee.

“One of the big steps we made is to improve how well the city is working together,” Gautreau said Monday.

The Fire Department, usually through its engine companies, handles inspections of buildings with three or more rental units. Since May 2015, more than 6,300 inspections and interactions have been recorded. That also includes going to schools, responding to complaints, granting fire permits and promoting public education on fire safety.

Since May 2015, there have been more than 3,300 inspections by city fire companies, with this year’s inspections on pace to exceed the 1,779 recorded in 2016. Gautreau said the companies are averaging 50 a week, and do so with clearer scheduling and better communication with other city departments about where problems may exist and what has been done.

The inspection at Morning Street was requested by Schnieder Property Management; Petruccelli and Brennan were accompanied by company representative Kelly Covey.

“There is nothing that is going to surprise Kelly,” Brennan said as she and Petruccelli walked through the units and greeted tenants.

“It is nice on our end to build a relationship with every tenant,” Covey said.

Gautreau said requests for inspections are becoming more frequent, even while the department notifies owners of buildings that are due for inspections.

“I believe they know and understand our process and we are going to get to them,” Gautreau said.

The inspections focus on safety, not personal habits or the lifestyles of tenants. But grills on balconies, items stored on staircases, or discarded smoke alarms can be tenant-related issues, and Brennan said inspectors try to educate everyone about possible hazards.

Brennan said tenants are also doing a good job of avoiding clutter on stairs and hallways that could inhibit emergency exits, and praised one tenant for keeping recyclables in the kitchen instead of an outside hall. 

On Morning Street, the captains found missing panels from a basement circuit breaker. On the second floor, a fire-rated door that would prevent a fire from spreading from a kitchen to a rear stairway needed an adjustment to close on its own.

Two more fire doors are needed in the building, and some tiles needed replacing above stairways; all of it will be specifically detailed in a plan of action. The Fire Department will re-inspect the building after work is done.

The inspection program is primarily risk-based, with fire companies using a citywide database to rank buildings by age, a lack of inspection records and other factors. Inspectors from the city Housing Safety Office inspect the one and two-dwelling units.

This year, the Fire Department has sent out 225 inspection requests, 200 notices of violations and filed 150 action plans to remedy violations.

Property owners who do not respond to letters requesting inspections can be taken to court, but Gautreau said the intent is to work closely with owners and managers, as well as other city agencies.

“We want complete compliance,” Gautreau said. “Very rarely do we go into a building and they completely pass.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland Fire Department Capt. John Brennan points out circuit breaker gaps that need plugging during an apartment building safety inspection July 13 on Munjoy Hill.

Portland Fire Department Capts. John Brennan, left, and David Petruccelli chat with Kelly Covey of Schneider Property Management following the July 13 inspection of an apartment building.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.