Portland fire safety panel suggests new inspection department

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PORTLAND — A new city department dedicated to enforcing fire safety and housing ordinances, and conducting inspections, could be a recommendation of the task force set up in the aftermath of the Nov. 1 Noyes Street fire that killed six people.

In their Dec. 17 meeting, task force members discussed how to best merge distinct inspection responsibilities within the city Fire and Planning departments, and what kind of staffing would be required to carry out proactive inspections, rather than complaint-based inspections.

Before the task force reconvenes on Jan. 5, 2015, for a second phase of meetings that will include tenant and landlord representatives, a fuller conception of the new department will be drafted.

The second phase of task force meetings will last through next month. Members hope to have recommendations ready for the City Council by Jan. 29 or early February 2015.

The Dec. 17 meeting made it clear public education is still viewed as the best tool to promote building and fire safety, whether it is city firefighters giving safety tips and guidelines to elementary school students, or city officials reminding residents how to provide anonymous tips about hazardous conditions.

“Education is going to be the way we are going to reach them,” Assistant Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said.

If education is the key, some consolidation may not be far behind.

Gautreau and the other task force members – Julie Sullivan of the city Health and Human Services Department, Neighborhood Prosecutor Rich Bianculli, Inspections Division Director Tammy Munson, Planning Board Chairman Stuart O’Brien, and Inspections Deputy Director Jon Rioux – discussed the structure of a department that would be overseen by acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian with the leeway to act independently.

“(It is) a one-stop shop, we need some authority in that shop,” Sullivan summarized.

Details of staffing and cost would be largely predicated on how many of the more than 17,000 housing units in the city would be inspected and at what frequency.

“It seems to me going proactive and going it with city staff alone is not really workable,” Sullivan said. The task force also discussed requiring property owners to obtain third-party inspections and have the results provided to the city.

City code inspector positions have been reduced over the last five years, from one inspector per housing district to three for the entire city, while the Fire Department has two inspectors in its fire prevention unit.

Gautreau supported having the inspectors working in the same office, but said they would still likely have different areas of expertise.

“You might be able to get a person who specializes in all of it, but how much would that cost?” he asked.

The extent of inspections remained an open question.

“How do you identify which buildings really deserve our attention?” Munson asked.

Bianculli said he envisions proactive inspections at selected properties every two or three years, and hopes the city will also be more strict about enforcement. 

Code and safety violations requiring court hearings are now heard once a month in the Cumberland County Unified Criminal Docket, he said, but not all violations reach that stage.

Property owners are also contacted by mail about what needs to be fixed. They get a 32-day deadline to meet code requirements, and Bianculli said the knowledge a court appearance will follow is an effective tool for compliance.

Gautreau said another means of enforcement could come by alerting a property owner’s insurance company if required inspections are not made.

The proposed department could also provide public information about rental properties on the city website, including where to find more detailed information if inspections disclose safety violations.

O’Brien had another goal in mind besides enhanced inspections and enforcement.

“Whatever comes out of this,” he said, “we need to put in metrics to collect data.”

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

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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.