SKOWHEGAN — Apartment safety inspections in this rental-heavy town of 9,000 historically have been done only if there’s a complaint about violations or someone requests one.

A 2014 fire in Portland that killed six has changed all that.

The town’s fire department will lead the effort on life safety and code inspections of apartment houses in Skowhegan in collaboration with the overburdened code enforcement office.

The Nov. 1, 2014, fire in Portland has prompted fire officials all over the state to take a new look at the causes of apartment house fires and ways to prevent them, Skowhegan Fire Capt. Jason Frost said.

“After the Noyes Street fire in Portland, we decided that we were going to start doing something here,” Frost said.

He said Skowhegan Code Enforcement Officer Randy Gray had enough to do with routine code and building inspections. “We thought we would like to try taking (life-safety checks) over and working with Randy on it,” Frost said.

Gray noted the high number of rental units in Skowhegan necessitates help with inspections. According to city-data.com, 43 percent of the town’s residents are tenants. The average for the state is 30 percent.

Gray said the Fire Department members “know the life-safety code as well as anyone does.”

“It just makes sense. They’re the people that go in and save lives if there’s a fire. It makes perfect sense that they’re starting to do that more and more.”

Because of the large amount of rental property in town, officials realized it would take too long to inspect every property initially – though that’s a goal – so they are bringing the landlords, property managers and tenants to the inspectors at a fire safety forum later this month.

‘BENEFIT TO EVERYONE’

Matt Smith, who owns 27 rental units in eight buildings in Skowhegan, said the inspections and the upcoming forum make sense for landlords and tenants alike. MaineHousing does some inspections at his buildings, but the Fire Department does the rest.

“I think it’s going to be a great thing. Everyone will be treated equally that way,” he said of the inspections. “It’s going to be a benefit to tenants as well as the landlord, so everybody knows what the rules are and (can) try and make the building safer.”

Smith said tenants welcome the visits by local life-safety inspectors because they feel safer knowing that their building meets all the standards to prevent a fire or that residents have a means of getting out of the building if there is a fire.

Smith said he will be going to the May 18 forum.

“I encourage everyone to go to gain what they have for information,” he said. “For the inspections, you’re not getting scolded. They’re going to come in and point out everything that needs to be done and bring it up to code. Then Jason (Frost) gives you a report and you just get everything done on the list, and they came back do a follow-up.”

Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said representatives from the state Fire Marshal’s Office will make a presentation at the forum, as will someone from Somerset Public Health.

“The idea is, this is going to give an opportunity for building owners to view the presentation, but then to ask questions,” Howard said. “We want to make sure that buildings are compliant with life-safety standards, and that protects the occupants of the building; and it also protects the building owners, especially when you have multiple families living there. You want to know that you’re providing a building that is up to standard, liabilitywise. It’s huge.”

He said firefighters’ jobs are not only to respond to fires, but to do everything they can to prevent fires before they happen. That begins with education, Howard said.

Smith added that if an apartment building has been inspected by the local fire department or by MaineHousing, then insurance companies are happy, too.

“At least you know your building is up to code and if something did happen, at least you’re covered,” he said. “I mentioned that to my agent, and he thought it was a great idea.”

Frost and firefighter Scott Libby took a special class offered by the Office of State Fire Marshal in January, and in March they successfully completed a National Fire Protection Agency life-safety test to become certified life-safety inspectors.

A CALL FOR SAFETY

The Noyes Street apartment building in Portland had a history of code violations, a fact that prompted fire officials across the state to research safety issues.

In Augusta, for instance, officials determined last year that since 2013, nearly 500 rental units had been lost to fire or were in danger of it because of code violations. The data was gathered as part of a successful Community Development Block Grant application the city filed after the Portland fire, seeking money to help landlords bring the city’s aging rental stock up to code.

When city officials first discussed the grant in January 2015, landlord Jim Smee urged Augusta city officials to prioritize for grant funding by focusing on safety code problems, citing the Portland fire.

“I wouldn’t want to see a repeat,” he said. “The thought of that makes it tough for us to get to sleep at night, all of us.”

The Augusta study determined lack of working smoke detectors was one of the biggest problems in Augusta rental housing.

Portland officials received 16 complaints about the Noyes Street building over an 11-year period. Survivors of the fire said they didn’t hear smoke alarms making noise.

The fire was the state’s deadliest in 40 years and resulted in six manslaughter charges against landlord Gregory Nisbet, who is scheduled for a September trial. If convicted, he’ll be the first landlord in Maine successfully prosecuted for manslaughter in the death of a tenant because of negligent operation of a building, the Portland Press Herald has reported. The families of the victims also have filed lawsuits against Nisbet.

The lack of smoke alarms and other violations in the Portland fire is what inspired the Skowhegan inspections and the idea of a public information meeting at 6 p.m. May 18 at the Skowhegan Recreation Center on Poulin Drive, Frost said.

Currently, inspections are by request or complaint-based. If someone calls to say there might be violations or if a landlord wants an inspection, the inspectors go to the building and check it.

With the new inspection plan, originally, inspectors were going to visit every apartment house in town; but they soon realized there were far too many multiple-family dwellings in Skowhegan, so Frost and Libby decided to bring the property owners to the inspectors with a safety class.

An apartment building in Maine is defined as any residential structure with three or more living units, he said. In Skowhegan, that ranges from three-unit buildings to some with as many as 15 individual units, both in and outside the downtown area.

Frost said landlords and property managers in Skowhegan have been receptive to the inspection program because most building owners know they need to do some work on their rental properties but don’t know what to focus on.

Frost said the landlords are contacted first for inspections, and they in turn tell the tenants that inspectors are coming over and to allow them in.

Inspectors begin outside the building, checking for a mandated second means of egress and for whether the windows and stairs are up to code.

“We’re looking for the life-safety stuff,” Frost said. “Is there egress out? Are the egress windows the right size? Are they running LP gas and are they doing it correctly? Is there junk around the building and are the exits blocked?

“Then we make entry in and we’re looking for electrical issues. Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are the really big thing we’re looking for. Do they have them? Are there enough of them and are they in the right spots?”

Frost said apartment house windows are required by safety code to be big enough so that a person can get out easily, but also so a Fire Department ladder can be placed in it and allow a firefighter with a full air pack to gain access.

Stairs from a second-story apartment are required if the window is more than 20 feet off the ground, he said.

Frost said that soon all of the apartment buildings in town will be visited as part of a routine program of inspections.

“The landlords have been really good about dealing with us,” he said. “We’re not there to make their life awful. We’re there to bring their building up to code because, God forbid, something happens in their building, they’re the one that is liable for it.

“Just like the Noyes Street fire.”