Fire checks differ for apartments

January 2, 2010 7:30:00 PM

Allen Baswell - [email protected]


While area cities conduct routine fire-safety inspections of commercial buildings, large residential buildings, such as apartment complexes, have less direct oversight, Starkville and Columbus officials said. 


"We do not have the manpower to get to every apartment complex all the time," Starkville Fire Chief Rodger Mann said. "We do more inspections of commercial buildings."  


Monday, a deadly fire ripped through the Academy Crossing Apartments in Starkville, killing nine people in the worst fire tragedy in the area in recent memory. Three women and six children were among the dead. 


Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said once the fire department and the State Fire Marshal''s office conclude their investigations into the fatal fire, evaluations will be made into how the city building officials conduct inspections. 


"We will go through an evaluation process to see how our system functions, and determine what if anything needs to be done different," he said. 


Mann said his department conducts yearly inspections of commercial buildings. "We check to make sure their fire alarm systems are in working order," he said. 


But apartments conduct their own inspections. "Owners and managers are to provide documentation to show they have been inspected," he said. Mann said his department did not make an inspection of the Academy Crossing complex before the fire. 


Mann said renters should consult with apartment maintenance people to make sure their units have the necessary fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and detectors. 


"We can check for those items, but many apartments have maintenance workers to do that," he said. 


Academy Crossing owner Mildred Rollins did not return calls from The Dispatch seeking comment about fire safety inspections at the complex. 




New, remodeled buildings inspected 


The City of Starkville Building Department also conducts inspections -- of new buildings as they are being built and after construction is complete. 


"We also do inspections of buildings that are being remodeled. The inspections we do have to follow standards set by the International Building Code and the National Electrical Code," said Ken Honeycutt, City of Starkville building inspector. 


During the inspections, Honeycutt said inspectors look for any immediate safety hazards. 


"We look at the electrical wiring, to see if it is faulty. We also check the plumbing to make sure it is in working order," he said. 


Some residents of the Academy Crossing complex complained of issues with wiring and faulty fire extinguishers and smoke detectors after the fire. 


Honeycutt said his department had not received complaints from tenants at the Academy Crossing Apartments regarding lack of proper working electrical outlets, air conditioning/heating units, or other appliances. 


"To my knowledge, we have not received complaints from tenants at that complex," he said. 


Honeycutt said his department has received calls in the past from renters making complaints. 


"Usually, these people are wanting to get out of a lease, and they want to make a complaint about something, that is what we have heard," he said. 




''Education is the biggest key'' 


Columbus Fire Chief Ken Moore said inspections of commercial and residential properties are two different things, and are handled differently. 


"We start with inspection of (commercial) buildings in October, and continue through the first of the year. It takes up to three months to complete. All of our department captains are certified to conduct the inspections, and they have their own districts they cover," he said. 


Moore said the department has a fire marshal, Todd Weathers, who works on the inspections with the captains. He makes sure the building owners are in compliance. 


"If they are not in compliance after an initial inspection, they are given 10 days to correct the problem. When they come back the second time, they are given a warning, and an additional 14 days to take care of it," he said. 


Giving them a ticket is the last resort the inspectors want to take, he added. 


As for residential inspections, particularly with apartments, Moore said the fire code does not give them jurisdiction to do inspections. 


"The management and owners have to come up with proper documentation to show that they have been inspected," he said. 


Educating the public about the importance of fire safety is just as important as enforcement of codes and requirements. 


"Education is the biggest key in fire prevention safety," Moore said.

Allen Baswell is a former staff reporter for The Dispatch