SKOWHEGAN — Firefighters’ jobs are not only to respond to fires, but also to do everything they can to prevent fires before they happen.

That begins with education, and that’s what Wednesday night’s public forum on fire safety hosted by the Skowhegan Fire Department was all about.

During a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation, Richard McCarthy, assistant state fire marshal in the Prevention Division, told current landlords and future landlords that “bad things can happen” if apartment buildings are not up to life-safety codes, local ordinances, state laws and standards explaining how to do things correctly.

Many of the approximately 30 people present for the forum said the information presented Wednesday was important and that more dialog is necessary between apartment owners and fire officials.

Donna Hodges, who owns about 100 units in Skowhegan and is a member of Central Maine Apartment Owners Association, said the presentation was valuable, but more dialog is needed among apartment owners, tenants and fire officials.

“The information itself tonight was good,” she said. “I’d like to know how, other than life-safety, how is an inspection going to help me and my relationship with my tenants. Is there any recourse if a tenant is destroying a unit and causes life-safety problems?”

McCarthy’s presentation touched on exits, escapes, stairs, windows and all the intricate laws that apply to safety. He said no building is grandfathered from safety codes and that a duplex is not considered an apartment complex. Only buildings with three or more dwelling units is considered an apartment house.

The forum was called largely because of the Nov. 1, 2014, fire on Noyes Street in Portland that killed six people. That fire prompted fire officials all over the state to take a new look at the causes of apartment house fires and ways to prevent them. Skowhegan was no exception. The lack of smoke alarms and other violations in the Portland fire is what inspired the Skowhegan inspections and the idea of a public information meeting.

The Noyes Street apartment building in Portland had a history of code violations and prompted fire officials across the state to stress safety.

The town has a large amount of rental property, and Skowhegan officials realized it would take too long to inspect every property initially — though that’s the goal — so they brought the landlords, property managers and tenants to the inspectors for a fire safety forum.

McCarthy presented detailed codes for fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and means of escape if a fire does break out in a multi-unit building.

“The whole concept of the life-safety codes is to get people out of the building quickly,” he said.

Currently, inspections in Skowhegan are by request or complaint-based. If someone calls to say there might be violations or if a landlord wants an inspection, the inspectors go to the building and check it.

Skowhegan Code Enforcement Officer Randy Gray had enough to do with routine code and building inspections, so the Fire Department stepped in to do life-safety inspections. Gray noted the high number of rental units in Skowhegan makes help with the inspections necessary. According to city-data.com, 43 percent of the town’s 9,000 residents rent their residences. The state average is 30 percent.

An apartment building in Maine is defined as any residential structure with three or more living units, McCarthy said. In Skowhegan, that ranges from three-unit buildings to some with as many as 15 individual units, both in and outside the downtown area.

Skowhegan Fire Capt. Jason Frost and firefighter Scott Libby took a special class offered by the Office of State Fire Marshal in January, and in March they successfully completed a National Fire Protection Agency life-safety test to become certified life safety inspectors.

Portland officials received 16 complaints about the Noyes Street building over an 11-year period. Survivors of the fire said they didn’t hear smoke alarms making noise.

The Noyes Street fire in Portland was the state’s deadliest in 40 years and resulted in six manslaughter charges against landlord Gregory Nisbet, who is scheduled for a September trial. If convicted, he’ll be the first landlord in Maine successfully prosecuted for manslaughter in the death of a tenant because of negligent operation of a building, the Portland Press Herald has reported. The victims’ families also have filed lawsuits against Nisbet.

McCarthy described codes for handrails and guardrails and the “rise and run” of staircases. He said code violations can occur easily and that apartment owners are encouraged to contact the Fire Department to schedule an inspection.

It could mean life or death, he said.

“There’s some pretty scary stuff out there,” he said. “The problem is that many towns are not doing what Skowhegan is trying to do. Just you folks being here tells me you’re interested in safety in your building. That’s huge.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow


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