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Mayor objects to blog about city fire decision

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Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham was not too pleased when he heard about a blog that appeared over the weekend in a national firefighting publication regarding the Watertown City Council’s decision to no longer allow firefighters to inspect commercial buildings for fire hazards.

The writer, John J. Salka Jr., a recently retired New York City battalion chief and nationally known fire instructor, wrote in a blog on Firehouse.com that he thought it was “insane” to stop the practice of city firefighters going into commercial buildings to conduct fire safety inspections.

The blog by the publication’s contributing editor irked the mayor so much he commented on it at Monday night’s City Council meeting. It bothered him because City Manager Sharon A. Addison has been trying to work things out behind the scenes on the turf battle between the Fire Department and the city Code Enforcement Office over the issue. It also comes at a time when she has been trying to calm the bad blood between the departments, the mayor said.

He wondered how Mr. Salka, an author who wrote the book “First In, Last Out — Leadership Lessons From the New York Fire Department,” would have gotten wind of the story about a city of Watertown issue. He surmised someone in the Fire Department may have tipped off the writer.

In his Saturday blog, Mr. Salka wrote the inspections are needed for city firefighters’ safety, noting he heard about the issue after coming across a recent Watertown Daily Times story about it. He contended firefighters need to know the layout of commercial buildings in case they ever have to get inside to fight a fire.

“I’m not quite sure what administrative or political situation behind the scenes caused this action but I do know one thing, it’s a mistake!” he wrote. “Whether or not the inspecting firefighters have any enforcement powers to correct code violations or not, there is a huge benefit, for both the community and the firefighters, to having them visit and walk around and familiarize themselves with the interior layout and furnishings of commercial buildings.”

Mr. Salka could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

The city manager has started meeting with representatives of the Fire Department and Code Enforcement Office to find a different way for firefighters to familiarize themselves with the city’s commercial buildings.

They have been talking about implementing “a pre-incident planning” program that would allow firefighters inside buildings to find out the locations of exits and electrical panels and how to shut off electricity and gas sources, she said.

“We recognize the importance of firefighters getting inside commercial buildings, hotels, churches and to familiarize themselves with the layout of buildings,” Ms. Addison said.

She said the idea for the pre-incident planning came from the firefighters.

The decision to end firefighter inspections was made by former City Manager Mary M. Corriveau on her last day of work at City Hall in April.

Mrs. Corriveau put an immediate stop to the fire inspections. She cited a 2005 state law and council resolution that ended the Fire Department’s role in conducting building inspections, contending the Code Enforcement Office was given sole authority to complete the inspections. Some business owners and property owners also complained about the fire inspections, she said.

Despite the law, the Fire Department continued to conduct the inspections for seven years.

Members of the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 quickly objected to Mrs. Corriveau’s order, contending the fire inspections kept firefighters “safe.”

At their Jan. 26 meeting, council members repealed the remaining sections of the city code pertaining to fire inspections because they have been “effectively replaced, superseded and/or pre-empted by the city Code Enforcement Office and state building codes.”

While the Fire Department described the fire inspections as a safety concern, the Code Enforcement Office contended they duplicated building code inspections.

In recent weeks, Ms. Addison has met on two occasions with representatives from the two offices to work on the program, most recently on Monday afternoon. She has instructed them to continue to work on the proposal, with the hopes of bringing the issue up at a work session with council members in April or May. She would like them to be finished with their work for City Council consideration this summer.

Fire Chief Dale C. Herman said the Fire Department has done pre-incident planning since the 1980s, but the information gleaned from going through commercial buildings was kept in three binders. It was difficult to use because it was “not easily accessible” when needed. So during the past three years, firefighters began taking photos of buildings’ interiors and the “raw data” is mainly used in training classes, he explained. So far, about 60 buildings have been completed. The efforts would be expanded under the new proposal.

But the fire inspections are still missed — they allowed firefighters to identify fire hazards in buildings that could hinder firefighting efforts, he said.

As for the pre-incident planning program, Code Enforcement Supervisor Shawn R. McWayne ”has no problem with them, as long as they don’t interfere with code enforcement.” It should also not be forced on property owners and they should not involve handing out code violations, he said.

Ms. Addison has also been trying to improve the “cooperation and communication” between the city departments after years of what she called “a turf battle” over the issue. And the mayor stressed “the management team should work together.”

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