ROCKLAND — Rockland’s fire chief said he is both baffled and concerned by the insistence of the U.S. Postal Service that he has no authority to enforce safety codes in the federally-owned building.

Rockland Fire Chief Christopher Whytock said Monday, Jan. 14 that he contacted a supervisor for the Postal Service at the regional offices in Portland following a Dec. 20 incident in which the Rockland post office was filled with smoke and postal officials initially refused to evacuate.

“I was told right up front that I had no authority to enforce codes in their building,” Whytock said.

He said he was informed that he could leave his “list of findings” with the person who is responsible for building maintenance, and she would talk to the postmaster in Rockland.

The Rockland building had no smoke alarms, no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors, and the fire extinguishers had expired inspections when the fire department responded to the Dec. 20 smoke event, the chief said.

“I couldn’t meet either one of them to talk about the issues found, nor could I follow up with any sort of inspection,” the chief said.

“This baffles my mind for so many obvious reasons. Not only the fact that they follow no life safety codes, but that the building leases space to private citizens, who I believe they have a responsibility to protect. Add to this the public who go into that building every day to carry out their business,” the chief said.

Whytock had said Dec. 20 that when he entered the lobby, the smoke was so thick that it made his throat burn. He then observed customers in line and clerks waiting on them.

He said he directed the clerks to evacuate the building, but they refused. The postmaster then came out and initially refused to leave, but after a few minutes agreed to evacuate, Whytock said.

The chief said this was the first time he had dealt with a situation in which occupants of a building had refused to evacuate when first directed to do so.

Postal Service spokesman Stephen Doherty said Jan. 14 that the chief was in civilian clothing and employees initially did not realize he was the chief and that when the postmaster knew who Whytock was, the building was evacuated. Doherty said he was told that the smoke was not in the section of the building where the public was.

The source of the smoke was a boiler that had been experiencing problems, the chief said. The building had no heat on the previous day, Whytock said he had been told, and when mechanics were restarting it, the smoke filled the building because there was no other ventilation other than the chimney.

The chief said the absolute first rule in such a situation is to evacuate.

“We have five people responding. If we have to perform rescues, we will have no one on fire suppression,” he said.

The federally owned building also leases some office space on the first and second floors of the east side of the building.

A fire in February 2017 destroyed the Winthrop post office.

Federal investigators determined that the fire was accidental and likely the result of a mechanical or electrical malfunction.

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