More than 100 property owners, landlords and a few tenants attended a forum Wednesday evening to learn about ways to prevent fatal fires.

The overarching messages were that tenant safety has to be the No. 1 priority, fire codes are the minimum standards that must be met and that even owners of code-compliant properties can be liable if a fire breaks out.

The forum, held at King Middle School and sponsored by the Southern Maine Landlord Association, came nearly three weeks after six young people died in an early morning fire at 20 Noyes St. It was the deadliest in Maine in 40 years and has shocked tenants and landlords alike.

“Recent tragedy at Noyes Street has brought the issue of fire safety to the forefront for many landlords,” said association President Brit Vitalius, who began the meeting with a moment of silence for the Noyes Street victims.

The investigation into the fire is ongoing, according to state Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas, who said the state is still awaiting information from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“We’re pretty much on hold until we get that (information), so we can do our analysis,” Thomas said.

Prior to the meeting, David Gulick and Maria Crouch, of Cumberland, said they wanted to make sure they were doing everything possible to make their properties safe.

Gulick said his first reaction to hearing that the Nov. 1 fire killed six young adults was that the smoke alarms had been disconnected. “We see that all time,” he said, though investigators have not said if that was a factor in the Noyes Street tragedy.

Gulick and Crouch own 10 units in Portland and Brunswick. They check their smoke alarms whenever a lease is signed and renewed, but they can’t stop people from tampering with the alarms. Stressing the importance of working alarms with new tenants “gets everyone talking about the issue,” he said.

Capt. David Petruccelli, a 19-year veteran with the Portland Fire Department, gave an overview of the city’s fire code, which like most municipalities and states is based on the National Fire Protection Association. He said the code is established by consensus among industry professionals.

“The code is the bare minimum of what you need to do to be in compliance” Petruccelli said.

Mark Cummings, of the Bath-based Fire Risk Management, Inc. consulting firm, cautioned against being satisfied with simply meeting code requirements, since consensus-based codes can often be influenced by lobbyists.

“Just because you’re code-compliant doesn’t mean you’re as safe as you ought to be,” Cummings said.

Much of fire safety is “common sense,” he said, including keeping exits clear.

“I think we can all agree that life safety really needs to be job one,” he said. In addition to nonworking smoke detectors, Petruccelli said violations that cause concern include grills being used and stored on porches and balconies, as well as hallways and stairwells cluttered, not only with trash, but tenant belongings such as bikes, furniture and bookcases. Those can hamper egress and contribute to the fire, he said.

Representatives from Clark Insurance shared 2011 claims data from Vermont Mutual, which handles insurance claims in New England.

The data showed that fires accounted for 10.6 percent of the $55 million in property claims. Thirty-seven percent of the fire claims stemmed from chimney fires and 14.5 percent were kitchen and cooking related. While wiring only accounted for 5.5 percent, the average claim was $55,504 – the most expensive category.

William Exley, a senior account executive at Clark Insurance, said that if landlords have documented problems with their properties that they do not address, they could face liability claims in the event of a fire, even if they are grandfathered under the code.

“If a reasonably safe landlord would have corrected the hazard, then you have to do it,” Exley said. “You have to make sure you correct those hazards.”

About 51 percent of Portland’s housing stock was built before 1940, according to the 2012 America Community Survey.

While fire codes have reduced the number of fires, older properties are exempt from some aspects of the new code until they undergo a major renovation. However, the city has formed a task force to review its fire and code inspection policies in the wake of the Noyes Street tragedy.

During a question and answer period, landlords expressed confusion about the specific requirements of the code, particularly what areas are grandfathered and which are not.

“The code is all in the interpretation,” Petruccelli said. “The department will work with the people who communicate with us. The problem comes when people don’t communicate with us.”

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