PORTLAND, Maine - The Portland Fire Department confirmed this week that it stopped carrying out routine inspections of the city's apartment buildings about a year ago.
City code calls for annual fire safety inspections for residential buildings containing three or more units. But city officials say this is an unrealistic target, and firefighters have instead chosen to focus their efforts elsewhere - at least for now.
Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria says the decision to suspend the routine inspection of apartment buildings early last year was taken for one very simple reason: "The inspections program that we were doing wasn't effective."
LaMoria says it was clear that his department did not have the training or the resources to consistently enforce the code requirement for all apartment buildings of three units or more.
"So as we worked on those improvements, we shifted the focus to doing what we could do," LaMoria says - which meant concentrating on buildings with known code violations, and working with schools to help them prepare emergency response plans.
LaMoria says regular inspections will resume - but only when firefighters have received additional training and equipment, which should be happening in the next couple of months.
The issue of fire safety has been front and center at City Hall for the last three months, after a fire killed six people at a two-unit apartment house.
City officials stress that the decision to suspend annual apartment inspections would have made no difference to the outcome of the Noyes Street blaze, because that building did not contain the three units required to trigger annual inspections.
The city's change in policy was unknown until this week, when it was confirmed by the Portland Press Herald. The city denies trying to conceal anything from the public. But some activists are not happy.
"All tenants are at risk," says Grace Damon. Damon is with the Portland Tenants Coalition, a group set up in the wake of the Noyes Street fire to represent the interests of those who occupy the city's estimated 17,000 rental housing units. "And we need to be informed appropriately when changes are made to any safety programs," she says.
But the president of the Southern Maine Landlord's Association says he's glad the city suspended its inspections. "The way fire inspections were done in the past was a broken system, from the perspective of landlords," says Brit Vitalius, who's also on Portland's Fire Safety Task Force.
Vitalius says it's better that the city will work on improving some of the areas that have been lacking, "including the training and follow up after the inspections, and better recordings of the violations and when violations are cleared."
Vitalius says he expects a lot of these issues to be addressed by a task force created in the wake of the Noyes Street fire. Its recommendations will be put before the City Council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee next Tuesday.
Committee chairman Ed Suslovic says that, under the circumstances, he can understand why chief LaMoria decided to suspend the annual apartment inspections.
"Any inspections program has to be consistent, it has to be uniformly applied," Suslovic says. "It really will end up backfiring if we don't have everyone going out doing inspections the exact same way."
Suslovic says he hopes a more evenly-enforced inspections regime will be one of the changes to emerge from the task force's recommendations.