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City takes step toward non-residential fire inspections

The City Council has shown initial support for Fire Chief John Karns' proposal that the fire department regularly inspect restaurants, hotels, theaters, dormitories, churches, nursing homes, apartment complexes and other public buildings to make sure they are free of fire hazards.

Private homes would not be inspected, although owners could request an inspection.

Inspection fees would range from $32 for small buildings to $192 for larger spaces. Fines would range from $50 to $150, with higher fines levied against building owners who delay correcting violations even after repeated inspections. A building owner would not be fined if a violation was found on a first inspection.

City Council members learned more about the proposal during a Monday night study session. Though councilors can't make official decisions in study sessions, they indicated their support for city staff to develop a resolution to launch the inspection program. The council will make a final decision on the matter at a future regular meeting.

Karns, who came to Ashland this summer from southern California to become the new Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief, said he was surprised to learn that the Ashland fire department doesn't regularly inspect buildings.

"It's one of the fundamental core services that fire departments usually provide," Karns said.

The Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee eliminated Fire Inspector Shawn Branaugh's job last year because of city budget problems. The fire inspector had been reviewing remodeling and development projects to make sure they were fire safe. Along with the fire marshall, who still has a job, the fire inspector also visited some existing buildings such as nursing homes.

Branaugh said in 2008 that even though he and Fire Marshall Margueritte Hickman did inspections, they didn't have enough time to do recommended annual inspections.

Before Branaugh was laid off, he warned that the fire department would not be able to carry out proactive inspections. He said he felt Budget Committee members misunderstood his job and thought he only focused on new development. Because of the downturn in construction, the Budget Committee members may have thought he was expendable.

Branaugh said the community would have to assume more risk without a fire inspector.

Rather than doing building inspections, the fire marshall is spending more time making sure that weeds and grasses are kept cut back because the city also eliminated code enforcement staff from the planning department, Karns said.

Overgrown weeds and grass can pose a fire risk, especially during the fire season when they are dried out.

Karns said he kept the proposed fees for inspections as low as possible.

"These fees are pretty reasonable," he told councilors on Monday night. "I've done my best to cut them down. I'm really trying to minimize the impact to the business community."

Karns projected revenues from fees and fines at about $80,000 a year — or roughly the amount needed to pay the salary and benefits to hire a fire inspector.

"Hopefully, we can get back our fire inspector," he said.

The fire inspector and fire marshall would carry out more advanced inspections of places like the multi-story Ashland Springs Hotel. Regular firefighters would be trained to conduct inspections of less complicated buildings and would visit those buildings all around town, Karns said.

Having the firefighters conduct inspections would help them become familiar with the layout of different buildings, which would aid them during emergencies like fires, he said.

Karns recalled how earlier in his career he ended up having to fight a fire in a building he had inspected.

"I went into a structure fire late at night and had such a calm feeling because I'd just inspected it a month ago," he said.

While they are out in two-person teams doing inspections, the regular firefighters would remain "conditionally available," meaning they could drop what they are doing and rush out to respond to emergencies, Karns said.

He displayed a number of photos to City Council members that showed the types of violations the fire marshall has found during the limited inspections the fire department does perform.

Those violations included a large baggage cart blocking an exit inside a hotel, a disconnected smoke detector, a smoke detector covered in a plastic bag, an exit sign with arrows pointing both to the exit and away from the exit, fire sprinkler heads that were aimed at the ceiling instead of down on a room, scorched combustible drywall next to a restaurant stove and large tree limbs leaning over a driveway that blocked a fire engine from reaching a building.

Ashland Fire & Rescue officials would have about 1,800 places that they would need to inspect. High risk target buildings like the Ashland Springs Hotel would be inspected regularly, but places with a lower risk for loss of life would be inspected every two years because of staffing levels, according to the inspection program proposal.

Reach Vickie Aldous at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.