HALLOWELL — The city’s fire chief and the Maine fire marshal’s office will conduct a review of fire risks in downtown buildings by November, a response to the devastating Gardiner fire last month that destroyed two buildings.

On Monday, Hallowell city councilors voted unanimously to direct Fire Chief Mike Grant to work with the fire marshal to identify buildings in the downtown area that should be priorities for inspection.

Grant and Maine State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas were invited to the council meeting to discuss city fire safety after the July fire in downtown Gardiner, which damaged buildings with four facades on Water Street and left 12 people homeless.

“I think our responsibility is to set the tone that people dying in a fire in Hallowell is something that we want to actively and aggressively avoid,” said Councilor Alan Stearns.

Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson said almost all of the damage in the July fire could have been prevented if the building had a sprinkler system, which the building didn’t need to meet codes. Sprinklers are governed by state laws, policies and the Maine Life Safety Standard, which has required sprinklers in most new apartment buildings since 1991.

At least six Maine cities and towns, including Portland and South Portland, have more stringent local requirements for sprinklers. Hallowell requires them in new apartment buildings with more than three units, but in many cases, older buildings may not need them.

Hallowell saw a high-profile downtown fire in 2007 when Slates Restaurant on Water Street was destroyed. But fire safety became controversial in 2013, when the fire marshal’s office cracked down on Hallowell bars allowing dancing without licenses, which require them to have certain numbers of exits and to meet occupancy and other standards to ensure safety.

Grant said the political firestorm after the crackdown led some bars to not seek licenses from the state, which effectively shut the marshal’s office out of key downtown buildings. That forces the city to enforce code compliance, and buildings slip through the cracks with a volunteer fire department, he said.

Now, the chief said, “There are still buildings downtown that I feel need thorough inspections.”

“Hallowell is all about, ‘Live and let live.’ That’s why everybody likes living here, because nobody judges and what have you,” Grant said after the vote. “But there’s certain things you have to look at.”

Now, Grant will work with the fire marshal’s office to assess fire risks in downtown buildings by looking at their exteriors and inspection history. They’re scheduled to report back to councilors in November.

Thomas said any eventual increase in enforcement will prompt some outcry from the public, but it’s necessary to prevent fires and his office is willing to work with business owners to improve their properties.

“The fact of the matter is you’re going to get calls, but trust us. Talk to us. Call me up,” he said. “Let me know what the issues are, then we’ll go and find out what the facts are.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


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