Bend lags on fire safety inspections

Recession-forced work shifts mean many businesses going uninspected

By Hillary Borrud / The Bulletin / @hborrud

Published Feb 25, 2013 at 04:00AM

If you went shopping, worked out or grabbed a bite to eat in Bend recently, there is a good chance that business has not been inspected for fire safety in a couple of years.

According to data provided by the Bend Fire Department, inspectors completed half as many fire safety inspections in 2012 as they did in 2008, down from more than 3,500 to approximately 1,700. Forty-four small businesses and other buildings in Bend have not had fire safety inspections since 2008, according to Fire Department data.

The decline is not a surprise to fire officials. Fire inspectors in Bend are pulling double duty these days, responding to fire alarms and certain other calls, as well as checking buildings for fire safety. The change began in 2008, when the recession forced cutbacks in the Fire Department and other areas of city government. In an effort to take pressure off firefighters and ensure they are available to respond to major fires, the department starting sending inspectors to handle certain calls.

Now the department has started to analyze fire incident information against inspection records to determine whether the problems that contributed to a fire might have been prevented through more frequent inspections.

Fire Marshal and Deputy Chief Larry Medina said anecdotal evidence from some fires suggests that problems identified in earlier fire safety inspections were never fixed. However, Medina said, the Fire Department must gather and analyze data before he will know whether there is a connection.

“Annual inspections are theoretically the goal, but what’s the risk we’re running if we don’t get an annual inspection?” Medina said.

More than seven years have passed since anyone in Bend died in a fire. In 2005, two people died in a fire at the Chalet Hotel on southeast Third Street. The couple had been staying in a room that authorities said was not equipped with a working smoke detector, as required by state law. The pair died of smoke inhalation, according to the state medical examiner.

The Fire Department had not inspected the Chalet Hotel since at least 2000. When fire officials inspected the 23-room hotel after the fire, they found six other rooms without working smoke alarms.

The Fire Department began to inspect hotels and motels annually after the Chalet Hotel fire. It also inspects schools, institutional buildings such as hospitals and certain other facilities annually, Medina said. State law requires the Office of the State Fire Marshal to inspect many of these buildings, but Medina said the state is also short of resources. Plus, local fire departments prefer to conduct investigations on behalf of the state because local firefighters respond to and potentially enter those buildings, Medina said.

“We respond to these buildings in an emergency, so it’s in our best interest to maintain them,” Medina said.

Aside from state laws that require inspections of certain types of buildings, no legal requirement states fire departments must inspect buildings on a certain schedule, Medina wrote in an email. Instead, the Bend Fire Department bases its inspection schedule on “priorities and the risks associated with occupancy hazard.” Examples of risk factors include how many people are typically in a building, the time of day they are there, whether hazardous materials are stored there and whether the occupants are consuming alcohol.

Bend Fire Chief Larry Huhn said he predicted the decrease in inspections, during presentations to the City Council in recent years. “But we didn’t have a lot of choice,” Huhn said. “The impacts have been as predicted.”

Calls for fire services continued to increase in recent years, while the Fire Department eliminated 10 employees through attrition in the last three years, Huhn has said previously.

Huhn said he hopes that as the economy improves, the city can begin to rebuild the Fire Department staff and some of the fire prevention staff can once again focus on inspections.

Ken Willette, division manager for the Public Fire Protection Division of the National Fire Protection Association, said fire departments across the country face the same dilemma.

“The economic impact of the recession and taxpayers being concerned about the investment they’re making in municipal organizations is being felt in every state, in many, many departments,” he said.

The National Fire Protection Association is about to release a draft document with benchmarks for the minimum number of fire prevention staff necessary to maintain safe buildings, based on the size of the community and the type of structures.

Today there are usually sprinkler systems, fire alarms and other safeguards in commercial buildings, hospitals and multifamily housing. “By and large, there is a fire code that establishes minimum criteria for fire protection systems in the buildings,” Willette said. “What gets missed is things like housekeeping, alterations to the facility that might have been done without a proper permit, the improper storage of combustibles ... Taking care of it could save a business from closing, from fire extending to other occupied properties and displacing residents, and using fire department resources to respond to the fire that could have been prevented.”

“Folks have to understand that’s the tradeoff they’re making,” Willette said.