Inspection program suspended before fatal Maine fire

City records show a 39 percent drop in the number of apartments inspected by the fire department over three years

Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND, Maine — New figures released by the city confirmed that Portland suspended its program of rental apartment safety inspections months before six young people died in a fire at a duplex on Noyes Street last November.

The program’s suspension was preceded by four years of steady decline in the number of inspections, according to data released ahead of the City Council’s public safety committee meeting Tuesday. Councilors plan to discuss ways to beef up Portland’s inspections and oversight of fire safety, including a proposal to create a new housing safety office. One key city councilor who had expressed reservations about a new safety office said Monday that he now will support moving forward with the proposal.

The data on the history of safety inspections sheds light on the status of a program that came under scrutiny after the fatal fire last November.

Portland’s fire chief had denied that the inspection program was suspended. But the report to councilors makes the suspension clear and shows that the program already had been winding down.

City records show a 39 percent drop in the number of apartments inspected by the fire department over three years, from 3,400 inspections in 2011 to 2,067 inspections in 2013. Only 510 inspections were conducted in 2014 before the proactive inspections were stopped while the department sought additional technology and training to improve the quality and consistency of its inspection program.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said Monday that firefighters resumed routine inspections of apartment buildings in May after receiving additional training.

The future of that program, including who will conduct the inspections and how many apartments can be reviewed, could depend on the outcome of the council discussions that resume Tuesday.

Councilor rethinks safety office
​A task force formed in the wake of the deadly Nov. 1 blaze has recommended the creation of a safety office with a staff that would report directly to the city manager. The proposed office would consist of three new inspectors to be cross-trained in fire and building codes, as well as an administrative assistant to maintain a proposed database of housing inspections and an official to coordinate inspections between the city’s code and fire departments.

The proposed housing safety office is included in the $221 million budget plan that is awaiting a final vote by councilors, but the public safety committee has yet to weigh in on whether it supports the proposed office. The program’s $600,000 in costs would be paid for by a $35-per-unit fee assessed on landlords when they register their rental properties with the city.

Councilors have been split about whether to create a new office to handle inspections. Several councilors have instead advocated for the fire department to pick up additional inspection duties.

But Monday, City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the public safety committee and had expressed reservations, said he will support the creation of a new, standalone housing office with the caveat that the new city manager would have the flexibility to reorganize the staffing, if necessary.

“I am still uncomfortable setting it up as a separate department, but in the spirit of compromise and to get things moving I’m willing to say, ‘fine. Let’s set this up,’ knowing full well that the new city manager will be looking at this closely,” Suslovic said.

The council could choose a new city manager at its meeting next Monday.

Suslovic said the committee also will consider forming a stakeholder group to work out other details, including a list of incentives for landlords who have demonstrated a commitment to safety. Potential incentives include discounts on registration fees for landlords who have smoke-free buildings or buildings with sprinklers and fire alarms.

Inspections have their limitations
Currently, firefighters only conduct proactive inspections of businesses and apartment buildings with three or more units. However, nearly half of the city’s 3,564 rental units are two-family homes like the one at 20-24 Noyes St., which officials say caught fire after smoking material was improperly disposed of on the front porch.

When fire officials inspect properties, they don’t investigate other building code issues, such as the stability of outdoor decks, unless the issue involves an emergency escape route.

The city’s code office, meanwhile, only inspects apartments when a complaint is made. Even then, only one inspector handles all of the complaints that come into the code office, and only the specific complaint is investigated.

In late April, 53-year-old Donald Stain died when a second-story railing he was leaning on gave way, causing him to fall 20 feet to the pavement below. Over the years, that apartment had passed sporadic inspections by firefighters, code officers and the Portland Housing Authority, but the porches appear to have been overlooked because they were not emergency exits.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said the department temporarily halted proactive inspections in early 2014, after an independent consultant noted a variety of problems, including a lack of consistency and adequate record-keeping. That year only 510 inspections were conducted by in-line fire personnel – a substantial drop from the 2,067 inspections in 2013 and the 2,940 inspections in 2012.

After the Press Herald reported that the program had been suspended for months, LaMoria called a news conference to refute that description, saying the department had shifted resources to pre-incident planning for large apartments and follow-up on buildings with existing violations. He later explained his decision in a memo to councilors and said the department would resume inspections sometime in April.

Bigger role for fire department
The department’s Fire Prevention Bureau, which is responsible for taking enforcement action against landlords who ignore the city, steadily increased its number of inspections to 570 in 2014 from 461 in 2013 and 161 in 2012, according to data released by the city.

Code officers also have increased their inspections to 4,954 in 2014 from 4,312 in 2013 and 2,405 in 2012.

Suslovic, who has been critical of what he sees as overstaffing in the fire department, believes firefighters must play a central role in housing safety, by conducting inspections seven days a week and referring “the most egregious offenses” to the housing safety office.

“A big part of the work between now and October is working with staff, the new city manager and department heads to make sure we are employing the significant resources of the Portland Fire Department to get out and cover a reasonable number of inspections, considering we have crews on 24/7,” he said.

Copyright 2015 Portland Press Herald
All Rights Reserved

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