BANGOR, Maine — Firefighters and inspectors have swept nearly 150 apartment buildings in Bangor since June, looking for problems that could put people’s lives at risk.
“I think we’ve been pleased at what we’ve seen,” Bangor Fire Chief Tom Higgins said Monday. “We haven’t seen the hazards we expected.”
Fire officials updated the city’s Government Operations Committee during a meeting Monday night on what they found during the earliest round of inspections.
Last summer, the city launched a multifamily housing inspection program — an effort to inspect every one of its 539 three- and four-unit apartment buildings. So far, Fire Department inspectors have combed through 149 buildings and 536 individual units looking for problems, according to Higgins.
Rental property safety has garnered renewed attention since a November 2014 fire in Portland killed six people. It was the deadliest fire in Maine in nearly four decades. The owner of the apartment building, Gregory Nisbet, faces six counts of manslaughter and four counts of violation of the life safety code in the wake of that blaze. Last summer, he pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The problems discovered in Bangor’s inspections range from the misuse of extension cords and lack of operational smoke detectors to unsafe storage of flammable liquids and blocked exits.
The most common problems were minor ones, according to Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Riitano. Of the violations found, about 23 percent involved carbon monoxide detectors that either weren’t installed or weren’t working, 20 percent were missing or nonworking smoke detectors, and 13 percent were apartments that weren’t labeled with a unit number.
Fire officials say fewer than 10 percent of the apartments had serious problems that required major follow-ups, such as blocked or inadequate exits or unsafe storage of flammable liquids.
The Fire Department kept records of all life safety code violations, but on Monday night, it couldn’t provide the total number of violations or say what percentage of apartments had violations.
Many problems are easy to solve on site that day, such as replacing batteries or tacking up apartment numbers. More serious problems, such as blocked exits or damaged chimneys, require more significant investment and time. Inspectors follow up with property owners and give them a timeline for fixing such violations.
To this point, the city has been working with landlords who responded to the department’s requests to look at their properties and scheduled walkthroughs. The city still needs to track down owners who haven’t responded. Higgins said it’s possible those properties could reveal more serious violations.
Inspections have tailed off for winter, but they will pick up again in the spring. Fire officials say they want to avoid tracking snow through people’s rooms and that the snow makes it difficult to walk around buildings to examine the property.
Getting through the nearly 400 remaining apartment buildings could take another two or three years. Once the last building is inspected, it likely will be time to start again.
“We’re just getting started,” Higgins said.
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