LISBON — As Lisbon councilors weigh launching a fire inspection program to help ensure apartment building owners are complying with fire safety rules, there is disagreement over how much authority the fire chief should have to enforce those rules.

Lisbon Fire Chief Nate LeClair said councilors asked him to inspect apartment buildings after a June 2018 fire destroyed a garage with an upstairs apartment along Route 196. The fire spread to a nearby home, which was badly damaged.

LeClair said after the fire that it was likely smoking-related and there were no working smoke detectors in the apartment or house.  He believes someone took the batteries out of the smoke alarm, which is common. The tenant was a family member of the property owners, and he doesn’t believe anyone was penalized for safety violations as a result of that fire.

Last week, LeClair told councilors he wants the authority to go into the roughly 80 apartment buildings in town to do inspections and fine landlords who don’t comply with fire safety rules.

LeClair said he is doing “goodwill” inspections for residents who call and request he inspect their wood stove or pellet stove, for example. He also will do an inspection if a resident complains about a safety issue, which he then turns over to code enforcement if he finds a problem.

But now he wants to do inspections over time of existing multi-family homes — buildings with at least three residential units — to make sure they are safe and meet the life safety code adopted by the state, he said. He’d be looking to make sure there are fire extinguishers, working smoke detectors in the right locations, working doors and clear paths to exits, for example.

Councilor Ferm Larochelle questioned whether the fire chief should enforce fire codes, rather than handing violations off to the code enforcement officer.

“That’s why we have a code enforcement (officer) in town,” he said.

LeClair pointed to a fatal fire in Portland in 2014 that killed six people. A duplex on Noyes Street caught fire and the landlord was found guilty of a fire code violation because the third-floor bedrooms lacked a secondary exit. Proactive inspections might help prevent future tragedies, he said.

“If we’re going to do this, I need to enforce those codes,” he said. “That’s why they’re there.”

Firefighters going to medical and fire calls in town have found 100-year-old homes divided into multiple apartments, some of which aren’t legal, LeClair said.

Councilor Allen Ward supported LeClair’s proposed inspection program.

“The fact is what he’s finding needs our support right here,” he said.

“I think it needs to be talked about a lot more,” Larochelle said.

Neither Topsham nor Brunswick fire departments inspect apartment buildings, LeClair said. Skowhegan, Falmouth, Lewiston and Auburn are among fire departments that do inspect apartments, but LeClair didn’t know how many other Maine departments have inspection programs.

LeClair said he will work with the town’s code enforcement officer on a proposal to bring back to the council.

“The bottom line is it’s something that I think we need to do,” he said. “It’s just a matter of trying to come up with a program that’s going to be easy to implement and to get out there.”


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