Portland’s fire department stopped conducting fire safety inspections of apartment buildings about a year ago despite city guidelines calling for annual walk-throughs of rental properties with three or more units.

There was no public notice when the change was made early in 2014, and even after a fatal fire in November focused renewed attention on the inspection program, city officials told the Portland Press Herald that the city’s safety program had not changed.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria confirmed this week that the inspections stopped happening in order to focus on other priorities, although he also maintained the program had not been suspended. In an interview Tuesday night, LaMoria said firefighters have been working with high-risk properties such as schools to prepare emergency response plans, but were no longer doing detailed inspections of rental units to ensure they had basic fire safety features such as working smoke detectors and adequate exits.

The regular inspection program will not resume until firefighters receive additional training from the National Fire Protection Association and the city procures 15 tablet computers that will allow firefighters to log inspection results on-site, LaMoria said, citing inadequate training and poor record-keeping that have plagued the program.

“We knew we had weaknesses and we’re working on those weaknesses,” the chief said.

Tom MacMillan, an organizer with the fledgling Portland Tenant’s Coalition, was disappointed that the fire department had stopped inspecting without informing the public, saying it is an example of why tenants need an advocate in City Hall.

“We don’t trust in City Hall to protect the lives of tenants,” MacMillan said. “It took people dying for the city to take action.”

Confirmation of the policy shift comes three months after a Nov. 1 fire on Noyes Street killed six young adults, prompting the city to form a task force to find ways to improve and increase inspections of the city’s rental housing stock.

The fire was started by improper disposal of smoking materials on the front porch, engulfing the front door in flames, officials said. But the extensive loss of life – it was Maine’s deadliest fire in 40 years – was partly attributed to non-working smoke detectors and a blocked secondary exit.

NOYES STREET BUILDING EXEMPT

LaMoria stressed that the decision to halt the inspection program at the beginning of 2014 did not contribute to the death toll in the Noyes Street fire. The two-unit building at 20-24 Noyes St. would not have been inspected by firefighters because they only inspect buildings with three or more units, he said.

“The Noyes Street building would not have been inspectable for the fire department in that program,” he said.

As a result of the fire, however, the city task force is recommending a new five-person fire safety division to beef up inspections, and some members are pushing to expand the inspection program to two-unit buildings.

Portland has had a rental inspection program for years, although it did not reach every apartment once a year. The city has an estimated 17,000 rental units, including those in two-unit buildings that were not subject to the safety checks.

Other New England cities, such as Manchester, New Hampshire, Burlington, Vermont, and Boston have housing inspection programs that include periodic visits, although municipal inspection programs can vary from annual inspections to once every three years or more. David Albin, Manchester’s code enforcement supervisor, said periodic inspections of the city’s 24,000 rental units is crucial for safety.

“The proactive system at least gives the city inspectors a chance to get into these buildings every three years and get the problems taken care of,” he said.

INSPECTION PROBLEMS NOTED IN 2013

Katie McGovern, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a Portland nonprofit that helps low-income people and sometimes represents tenants in rental disputes, serves on the city task force appointed to improve the city’s inspection program. She has been advocating for expanding the fire department’s ability to inspect all rental units, including two-family homes.

“I think we all assume there is this level of safety, but the Noyes Street fire called people’s attention to the fact that the (current) system is inadequate,” McGovern said.

The Press Herald began investigating the city’s fire inspection program in the fall of 2013 after an independent consultant, Public Safety Solutions, Inc., noted a host of problems, including poor record-keeping, a lack of training and a lack of staff to hold non-compliant landlords responsible. The report also urged the city to step up the pace of inspections and said that only 60 percent of the 4,900 apartment buildings and businesses due for annual inspections were visited in 2012.

“In addition to the obvious life-safety risk implications for citizens, tourists and firefighters due to not completing a citywide fire safety code inspection program on a regular basis, this omission could present a significant liability should a questionable fire scenario present itself in a property that has not been inspected or has not been inspected for a long period of time,” the report states.

STATUS OF FIRE INSPECTIONS ELUSIVE

As the Press Herald was preparing a story about the inspection program after the fatal fire in November, City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin assured the paper that no changes had been made to the program. Requests to interview fire personnel about the status of the program were denied.

Indications that the city’s inspection policy had changed emerged during a series of fire safety task force meetings in December and January, including when the fire department’s appointee, Keith Gautreau, told the group that the program had been suspended. A draft report of the group’s recommendations released Jan. 29 called for the city to “reinstate routine inspections of relevant housing stock by fire station personnel.”

The Press Herald tried for two weeks to clarify the current status of the program. Last week, LaMoria said in an email that the routine inspections conducted by in-service firefighters had not been suspended, but acknowledged that the department’s priorities had shifted to pre-planning activities for properties such as schools and nursing homes that are considered to carry higher risks because of their occupants, and to following up on apartment buildings and businesses that have known violations.

WAS PROGRAM SUSPENSION CONCEALED?

Meanwhile, a revised set of recommendations presented to the public at a task force meeting Tuesday was changed to remove the word “reinstate” from the section dealing with routine inspections.

Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said Wednesday that the city wasn’t trying to conceal that inspections were no longer taking place, and that the inconsistency between statements made to the task force and to the media stem from the complexity of the program.

Hill-Christian said department heads have discretion about how to allocate staff and that those decisions are not typically announced publicly. She also said she believes LaMoria acted appropriately by stopping the annual inspection program in order to focus on other priorities.

“I think the fire department does wonderful work each and every day to save lives, but the department does have some challenges,” Hill-Christian said. “There are things we can fix and that’s what I am focusing on now.”

A FOCUS ON MAKING IMPROVEMENTS

City Councilor Edward Suslovic said he learned the fire inspection program was suspended through the task force, but he also was focused on making improvements rather than dwelling on the past.

“We can always go back and second-guess,” said Suslovic, who chairs the public safety committee. “I genuinely want to see improvements, so I’m focused on moving forward.”

Councilor Jill Duson, who also serves on the committee, did not want to comment about the program being suspended until she learned more about what was happening. “I need to hear the story from the fire chief himself,” she said.

LaMoria said this week that he expects the fire department to resume the regular inspection program in the coming months, after the city purchases 15 tablet computers and additional training to ensure consistency of inspections.

The program could resume within 90 days, he said, although the city has yet to secure the grant funding needed to buy the tablets.

The independent review of the fire department in March 2013 made it clear that the number of inspections completed was not as important as the quality of those inspections, so the department has focused on buildings that present the greatest risk, LaMoria said.

“We’re trying to fix that so we have quality results,” he said.