PORTLAND — The city’s Fire Safety Task Force has finished its work, but officials are wary of the cost of implementing some recommendations.
“I am going to sit down with department heads and review the affected departments,” acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said Feb. 12, two days after the report was presented to the City Council Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee.
Hill-Christian said frugality is required.
“We will try to redeploy resources as much as possible,” she said. “There may be a request for additional positions, but we will be looking inside first.”
Hill-Christian convened the task force in December 2014, in the aftermath of the Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St. that killed six people.
City officials joined members of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and Pine Tree Legal Assistance to review municipal inspection divisions and determine how to better educate the public about fire safety.
The task force recommended five new positions to support life-safety inspections in the city’s 17,000 rental units; prioritizing complaints about safety risks; an online database of complaints and inspection logs; enforcing re-inspection fees, and more public fire safety education.
The positions – a “housing safety official,” three inspectors cross-trained in building and life-safety codes, a project manager, and reinstating a Fire Department education officer – are estimated to cost $375,000. About $120,000 from registration fees assessed to landlords could offset some of the expense.
Councilor Ed Suslovic is the chairman of the Public Safety Committee and is on the Council Finance Committee. He said any ordinance changes could be discussed next month.
“I think it will be a real tough sell to add positions when we may be cutting (other) positions,” he said.
Fire Department Assistant Chief Keith Gautreau has said a more proactive inspection program for buildings with at least three rental units may begin in the spring.
The inspection program had been on hold for the past year, a decision Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said was made in part “to focus our efforts on existing violations.”
“I would agree with the chief they were not being done well,” Suslovic said. “I’d like to think we could devote some of those resources to the proactive efforts.”
Tom MacMillan and Grace Damon of the Portland Tenants Union said the task force lacked input from tenants, but Hill-Christian said Pine Tree Legal attorney Katie McGovern was a tenant advocate.
“Katie was a very active and vocal participant for the tenants,” Hill-Christian said.
MacMillan said a fund to pay expenses for displaced tenants is needed, as is a city tenant advocate.
Landlords President Brit Vitalius on Feb. 12 said tenants need to be held responsible, too.
The SMLA has proposed a new document detailing fire safety responsibilities for tenants and landlords, he said. The final product could be a collaboration between city officials, the tenants union and Pine Tree Legal.
Susie Kendeigh, a Realtor and landlord who works with Vitalius, agreed that safety is a shared responsibility.
Looking at items cluttering a hallway of an India Street apartment building on Feb. 13, Kendeigh said she and her husband, Jay, have good tenants who can still cause hazards.
“When we bought this, it was basically condemned,” she said of the building. Fifteen years later, a new steel fire escape, restored wood floors, and fire-resistant doors are some of the safety improvements they have made.
“When the (Noyes Street) fire happened, we were very paranoid,” Kendeigh said. The couple hired contractors to ensure smoke and carbon monoxide alarms were installed properly and active.
“Tenant relations can be very challenging,” Kendeigh said. “Most have never owned a place, they may not understand a running toilet costs a lot of money.”
Susie Kendeigh and her husband bought this apartment building on India Street in Portland in 1999. She said the couple installed new smoke alarms after the Nov. 1, 2014, fire on Noyes Street.
Clutter in the hall Feb. 13 at Susie Kendeigh’s India Street apartment building in Portland is something she said tenants must be reminded about, no matter how responsible they can be.
Among renovations made to their India Street apartment building, Susie Kendeigh and her husband replaced a wooden fire escape with a steel unit, but she said she still has to remind tenants not to store items on the escape.
PORTLAND — Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said the owner of 20-24 Noyes St., Gregory Nisbet, could face manslaughter charges, but the investigation into the Nov. 1, 2014, fire that killed six people is still unfinished.
“The elephant in the room and the first thing that comes to mind is manslaughter,” Anderson said at a Feb. 11 Cumberland County Courthouse press conference. But Assistant District Attorney Bud Ellis is still studying the state fire marshal’s office report and photos from the scene, she said.
The cause of the fire was determined to be accidental, but the report was forwarded to Anderson for further investigation. She said there is no time frame for when or if the case will go to a grand jury for a possible indictment.
— David Harry