The city of Portland halted routine, proactive fire safety inspections of residential rental units early last year. Several months later, on Nov. 1, 2014, a fire tore through 20 Noyes St., a multi-unit apartment dwelling, killing six.
Investigators later found smoke detectors at the property were disabled and exits blocked. There’s no way to know if a fire safety inspection of the property would have minimized the loss of life, but blocked exits and disabled smoke detectors are violations an inspection could have flagged before tragedy struck.
Portland restarted its inspection program after the Noyes Street blaze, but just the possibility that an inspection could have led to a different outcome compounds the pain of Maine’s deadliest fire in four decades.
That’s why we’re pleased to see the city of Bangor moving ahead and starting to develop a proactive fire safety inspection program for the Queen City’s nearly 6,000 apartments in rental properties with three or more units.
Currently, the city only inspects apartment units in response to complaints from tenants and requests from landlords. Federally subsidized housing, such as Section 8 housing, is an exception. Federal rules require annual inspections of those units to ensure fire safety and health standards are met.
The city expects to roll out the inspection program May 1, with fire engine companies conducting inspections of the city’s 539 three- and four-unit apartment buildings. Fire inspectors and code enforcement officers will inspect larger apartment buildings. City officials estimate it will take three years before they’re able to inspect all the apartments that will now be part of the inspection regimen.
Annual inspections would be ideal. But even if the city doesn’t get to every unit every year, this new effort is a welcome start, and Bangor renters will only be safer for it.
Fire departments across the country have long placed more emphasis on safety inspections of places where the public gathers — schools, stores and businesses, for example. In the process, some of the places at the greatest fire risk — residences — have largely been overlooked.
It’s unrealistic — and unconstitutional, since the Fourth Amendment prevents unsolicited inspections of single-family homes, a building code definition that also covers two-unit dwellings — for fire departments to inspect every residential unit, from multi-apartment buildings to single-family homes. But a review of data on the more than 1 million fires each year in the U.S. points to residences as a prime spot to direct fire prevention efforts.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, residential fires accounted for nearly 76 percent of fire deaths in 2011 along with 79 percent of fire injuries and more than half of the value of property lost due to fire. Nearly half of residential fires are cooking-related, which highlights the importance of having working smoke detectors in place and unencumbered access to exits. In fatal fires, smoking, arson and general carelessness are among the leading causes.
In addition to residents of rental units, fires put firefighters at risk. Some 106 firefighters died while on duty in 2013, and dozens of others died from consequences related to fighting fires and responding to emergency incidents.
Fortunately, the numbers of fires, fire-related deaths and injuries, and the value of property lost to fire are all on a downward trend in the U.S. The number of fires dropped 19.5 percent between 2002 and 2011, to 1.39 million, and deaths dropped 20.6 percent to 3,005.
Still, fire takes too large a toll on Maine and the U.S. Twenty-five people perished in 14 fatal fires in Maine last year. If basic fire safety inspections can contribute to saving just a few more lives, preventing injuries, keeping more people out of homelessness and reducing property damage, it’s more than worthwhile for Bangor.