Thursday, December 5, 2013
WATERVILLE — City councilors on Tuesday voted unanimously to authorize Chief David LaFountain to enforce national fire safety codes in the downtown district.
The Waterville Fire Department fights a fire in a Main Street building in downtown Waterville in May.
Staff photos by Jim Evans
The 7–0 vote was only a first step in ensuring the fire’s authority, as city officials said they now may have to work with City Solicitor William Lee to draw up an enforcement policy.
The discussion was the result of concerns about a May 3 downtown fire that damaged the building at 18 Main St. Residential tenants lived on the upper floors and a tattoo-and-wireless communications business was on the first floor.
LaFountain said the building owner turned off the sprinkler system in the building in 2005 but had promised to turn it back on when people lived in the building; however, the sprinkler was not turned back on, he said. LaFountain said the fire would not have been as bad as it was, had the system been on.
Several downtown building owners turned out at Tuesday’s meeting, asking whether buildings that have never had sprinkler systems now must have them. Such systems are cost-prohibitive, they said.
LaFountain said if the national fire safety codes require them, then they would have to be installed; but sprinkler requirements depend on the type of occupancy in a building.
Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, said he attended meetings about the enforcement and codes issue, adding that the information makes one’s head spin, as there are so many rules and regulations and it is not clear what rules apply to what situations
“Basically, my understanding is that nobody was designated (in Waterville) as the person who had the authority to enforce the codes that were already in place,” he said.
Meanwhile, LaFountain said that in working with Kennebec Water District officials, it was determined that three buildings downtown had sprinkler systems that were shut down, and one of those was an unoccupied building.
The Fire Department does regular fire safety inspections in downtown buildings and works with building owners to help them comply with codes.
City Manager Michael Roy said the latest information he received is that 18 Main St. is going to be torn down and a one-story structure will be built in its place.
A call placed earlier Tuesday to building owner John Weeks seeking comment about the building was not returned.
Meanwhile, apartment building owner Chris McMorrow urged councilors to move slowly on developing any new policies on fire safety enforcement, as state and local regulations are different. He asked that any new policies developed are fair to everyone and take existing laws into consideration.
Mayor Karen Heck sought to assure McMorrow that the city’s is trying to be fair to everyone involved.
“Nobody’s rushing into anything,” she said.
McMorrow said he was told at one point that his apartments needed fire extinguishers and then was told no law requires that. Extinguishers can cost more than $25 each and often disappear, he said.
“The things you’re doing — I’m just saying, be careful, be clear and make sure it’s fair to all,” he said.
He and other building owners said Fire Department officials and Code Enforcement Officer Garth Collins are always courteous and helpful when doing inspections.
Building owner and landlord Lindsey Booker Burrill said fire, insurance and housing officials inspect her buildings to make sure they are safe and habitable for tenants. She asked councilors to take into consideration that the city’s effort may represent some redundancy.
Thomas reiterated the example of the 18 Main St. fire as a reason enforcement is needed, as it was unclear at the time who had the authority to enforce an order to turn the sprinkler system back on.
“All we could do was go down and say, ‘Would you please turn your sprinkler back on?’” he said.
LaFountain said he would be happy to meet with the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association to discuss the issue. He sought to assure building owners that if they have had inspections from the Fire Department and were found to be in compliance, they are not facing problems.
“There’s nothing new here,” he said. “We will do everything we can do to help apartment owners meet code. I’m not going to become a hammer and now everything looks like a nail.”
Amy Calder — 861-9247