Does Lack of Building Inspections Put Firefighters’ Lives at Risk?
Thursday, May 08, 2014
Issues of needing to better monitor building inspections and the permit process have come into play after situations like the fire in Boston on March 26th, which claimed the lives of two firefighters. The fire was started by some welders who were working without a permit.
“I definitely see this as an issue,” said Robert Spurr, the 2nd Vice President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “Better inspections are always a good thing. I am always in favor of more inspections; it ensures that both our firefighters and our citizens remain safe.”
Some cities in Massachusetts have made efforts to put programs in place that would require a building inspection prior to a new tenant moving in. Malden is an example of one city that already has the program, while Framingham is currently working to implement the program. Other than a voluntary program in Worcester, there is no such program in place.
A Firefighter’s Perspective
Firefighters acknowledge that they have one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy proper protection. After all, the more effort there is in making sure that buildings are safe for a firefighter, the more chance the building will be safe for a tenant or family.
Many things become potential concerns for firefighters in regards to the safety of a building. Illegal modifications are a huge concern because the people involved with the modifications could make a mistake or not know what they are doing.
There is also a concern about the age of a house. Some firefighters feel that older houses offer a higher risk of structural damage and more of a potential for illegal modifications, but many firefighters are worried about the condition of newer houses.
“To be quite honest, I am much more concerned with going into a new house than an old one,” said Alan Manley, who is one of the Massachusetts representatives for the National Fallen Firefighters Association. He is also the Deputy Chief of the Westport Fire Department. “Older houses are made of much stronger lumber; support beams are usually made by using solid 2x6 or 2x8 pieces of wood. Some of these newer houses piece together composite pieces of wood which not only aren’t as strong, but also burn at a much quicker rate.”
In terms of enforcing regulations and standards for building safety and inspections, Manley believes that state legislation is key, in order to provide a unified set of rules and regulations, just like any other state law. He also believes that even with these laws in place, local level agencies should enforce their own set of regulations; ones that are more tailor-made to the specific city in question.
“We are always concerned that the codes of buildings are not up to date,” said Manley. “I would say that state level laws would work the best to enforce these building regulations, just because it offers a degree of uniformity. Not only that, state level laws are enforced at a local level anyway.”
“I would certainly advocate for anything that would ensure public safety or the safety of a fellow firefighter,” said Manley. “With that being said, funding is always an issue. The situation really is a double-edged sword. If you take money from a city’s budget, then you are taking it from another department, which is something that we have to be conscious of. We can enforce the codes that we have now or even come up with more strict enforcement measures, but ultimately, it always comes back to money and man power.”
Building Inspection Efforts
Worcester is a city that is committed to making sure that buildings are properly inspected, but the housing department does acknowledge that not every house can be checked as frequently as one would hope.
Worcester’s current standard is to inspect multiple family homes every five years. Other programs are also in place and designed to make sure that building codes are up to standard, but sometimes situations can slip through the cracks.
“We are a city that has over 43,000 properties,” said Amanda Wilson, the Director of Housing and Health in Worcester. “Granted, not all of these are properties that we would go in and inspect, but there still is a wealth of buildings in the area; it certainly becomes a challenge to monitor all of them.”
Wilson says that there currently is a voluntary program in place where owners of buildings that are rented can voluntarily get their buildings checked in between tenants. The program is designed both as a way to inspect buildings and to give tenants a piece of mind. If a building is approved, then a certificate is provided.
“The inspection ensures that the building is up to code,” said Wilson. “But not all property owners are approving of the inspections because they feel like we are just trying to get more money out of them; they also feel like the process is too invasive. We are currently working on trying to make the program more appealing.”
While Worcester has programs in place designed to inspect buildings, Wilson acknowledges that more could be done, but such is always the case with any situation. One of the major problems with creating more programs to increase inspections is finding both the man power and the funding needed to have more inspections.
Wilson also notes that illegal building modifications are a problem when inspecting buildings. Illegal modifications are when someone makes an alteration to the building in question without a permit. These “fixes” often do more harm than good because they are usually done by people who are not properly trained.
While the city does crack down on such offenses, they are typically hard to find. Unless conducting an inspection and seeing a problem, or catching someone in the act of making an illegal modification, these are issues that usually go unfound. The city may not be able to enforce the situation in every building every day, but they are certainly trying to cut down on these instances.
“We really try to find and rectify a lot of situations occurring in these buildings,” said Wilson. “Sometimes you will have a certified electrician come into a house with a permit, but they will also do some minor plumbing work which they don’t have a permit for. Situations like this can become very dangerous because the people making these modifications often don’t know what they are doing; sometimes important structural or safety features can be removed. We are trying to make an effort to uncover these issues before they become problems in the home.”
Post Fire Investigation
Fire investigators are called to the scene so that three things can be determined: the cause of the fire, the origin of the fire, and the responsibility of the fire. Kathryn Smith, the Vice Chariman of the Board of Governors at NAFI, says that there are often many causes of a fire.
“One of the first things we look into is to see if the building met all of the proper codes,” said Smith. “The cause or result of the fire really depends on the case; sometimes the results can be hard to find if the fire caused severe damages. Structural integrity is definitely an issue among some buildings, but it definitely isn’t the only cause.”
A building being up to code is definitely a concern among those involved in fire prevention. A house that isn’t up to code may collapse more rapidly than one that is up to code.
“All fires progress differently so it is hard to determine what will happen,” said Smith. “A small fire that is directly under a support beam may collapse a building faster than a larger fire that is away from any building support.”
Although fires are unpredictable, buildings not being up to code represent a whole new form of danger to firefighters, one that doesn’t need to be there. With that being said, it should still be acknowledged that firefighting is a dangerous job, one that always presents a form of danger.
“I will say that in general, there is supposed to be a perimeter check outside of the house prior to entering a building on fire,” said Smith. “There are things that firefighters are supposed to look for that could present as warning flags for more danger. With that being said, fires are certainly dangerous and unpredictable.”
Related Slideshow: New England Worker Fatalities
Below are the top 25 deadliest jobs in New England, based on the absolute number of fatalities for each occupation from 2008 to 2012, the most recently available year. Along with fatality figures, the median salary for each position, the overall occupation category, and the number of on-the-job deaths for each category are included. Where necessary, descriptions of each job are also provided. Data was obtained from the New England office of the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics in Boston. Note that data for 2012 remains preliminary. It will be finalized later this spring.
Number of Fatalities: 6
Median Salary: $39,980 to $54,560
Occupation Group: Community and social service occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 12
Note: Category encompasses several specific occupations, including social workers in the child, family and school, health care, mental health and substance abuse fields. Because of insufficent data a breakdown by specific occupation was not available.
First-Line Supervisors of Retail Sales Workers
Number of Fatalities: 8
Median Salary: $36,820
Occupation Group: Sales and related occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 26
Note: First-line supervisors directly oversee and coordinate activities of retail sales workers in an establishment or department. Duties may include management functions, such as purchasing, budgeting, accounting, and personnel work, in addition to supervisory duties.
Number of Fatalities:8
Median Salary: $22,670
Occupation Group: Transportation and material moving occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 167
Note: Includes those who drive trucks or other vehicles over established routes or within an established territory and sell or deliver goods, such as food products, including restaurant take-out items, or pick up or deliver items such as commercial laundry. May also take orders, collect payment, or stock merchandise at point of delivery. Includes newspaper delivery drivers. Excludes Coin, Vending, and Amusement Machine Servicers and Repairers and Light Truck or Delivery Services Drivers.
Number of Fatalities: 9
Median Salary: $73,280
Occupation Group: Transportation and material moving occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 167
Note: Category includes those who pilot and navigate the flight of fixed-wing aircraft on nonscheduled air carrier routes, or helicopters. Requires Commercial Pilot certificate. Includes charter pilots with similar certification, and air ambulance and air tour pilots. Excludes regional, National, and international airline pilots.
Number of Fatalities: 12
Median Salary: $35,250
Occupation Group: Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 64
Note: Fallers use axes or chainsaws to fell trees using knowledge of tree characteristics and cutting techniques to control direction of fall and minimize tree damage.
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