By Travis Gulbrandson
Fire chief Shannon Draper has asked the Vermillion City Council to hire a fire inspector.
The city’s fire department currently consists of one paid employee – Draper himself – and 48 volunteers.
Draper is currently the only investigator on staff.
“It’s required by state law that we investigate the cause and determine it for every fire, no matter what the size,” he said. “Currently, when I am in town, every fire is investigated. … When I’m out of town only major fires and fatalities will be inspected, and that will be done by the state fire marshal and the ATF.”
Hiring a full-time inspector would cost the city $40,500 plus benefits, while a part-time position would cost $15 an hour.
“I know that it’s a balanced budget and the money has to come from somewhere, but this is what I see as the answer: Adding an inspector,” Draper said. “Is a full-time position better than part-time? Obviously, it is, but anything helps.”
In addition to improving safety conditions, Draper said a second fire inspector also would lower the city’s ISO rating “by quite a few points.”
“In the operations sector, having this person will save a lot of money down the road,” he said.
While Draper said he does not have a solid number on how many public buildings need to be inspected to ensure they are up to code, he estimates it to be approximately 300.
“Of that 300, we’re probably going to be able to get to 20 percent annually,” he said.
Just which buildings will be inspected is based on classified occupancies by hazard.
“There are some buildings … that I want to get in every single year, and so it’s not that we’re going to miss it because of the 20 (percent), it’s just that there are others that probably will not be inspected.”
He added that all the buildings he has inspected since becoming chief have had to be re-inspected – at least one of them “three or four times.”
“It’s not that the owners … are doing anything intentionally, it’s education,” Draper said. “That’s what the issue is here. We’ve never been in these businesses. We’ve not been in these occupancies, and we’re going in and finding very common issues, and it’s just stuff they didn’t know. So it’s working with them, it’s educating the business owner.”
To illustrate his point, Draper showed the council members a number of slides featuring local violations – all of which were unintentional on the part of business owners.
They included a locked exit door, a blocked exit, window air conditioning units that would prevent occupants from escaping and what he termed “housekeeping issues,” such as grease coming out of a vent.
One photo showed an open padlock on a hasp that could be secured by anyone passing by.
The door was the only exit to an aftercare program.
“I’m not able by myself to get around to all these occupancies, get into the community, not to come down hard on occupants, homeowners or business-owners, but to educate,” Draper said. “We have had medical calls to these daycares. We go in, (and it looks) like a normal home, and there’s a bunch of children in there. I ask the owner, ‘Where are your smoke detectors?’ ‘Well, I didn’t know I had to have extra ones because it’s a daycare.’”
While building inspections of businesses and public spaces are required by state statue, Draper said the city is not non-compliant if they can’t investigate each of those places each year.
“(That’s) unless there was, say, a suspicious strain of fires, dumpster fires or something like that, where we later find that there was a crime,” he said. “If it wasn’t investigated properly or documented, then evidence would be lost.”
Draper said that the volunteer firefighters are required to do 20 hours of training per month, and some of them have been helping with inspections, but the numbers are still low.
“My main concern is that the public has this sense of safety when they walk into a public building, because there are codes. … The public knows that, and so they automatically assume that things are compliant, that the area they are in, that the area they are sending their children is safe,” he said.
He reiterated that the safety issues are not intentional on the part of business owners.
“I think we’re doing a great job (in regard to inspections), but I just see this deficiency, and I wanted to educate the council as to what it truly is,” Draper said.
No official action was taken.