BRUNSWICK — Brunswick officials are reviving discussions of an inspection program for multi-unit apartment buildings, spurred by Portland’s response to the deadly fire on Noyes Street last year.

The town debated strengthening its rental unit inspection program four years ago after a spate of apartment building fires, but never adopted the proposal because of concerns over how to pay for it. Members of the town’s Master Plan Implementation Committee “dusted off” that plan this year as they watched Portland officials grapple with their apartment building inspection program after the Nov. 1 fire on Noyes Street that killed six young adults.

“We watched that city, Portland, really spur to action and very quickly implement a program for inspection, a payment program for that inspection program and implement other additions to this program,” Margo Knight, chairwoman of the committee, said at a Brunswick Town Council meeting this week. “I think, and the committee thinks, we could do at least some of that, and very quickly.”

Councilors indicated their support for re-examining a rental inspection program. Town Manager John Eldridge said staff members have already started looking at the issue with the fire department, but the work is just beginning.

“We have a proposal that was made back in 2011 that we can take out of the closet,” Eldridge said. “I’ve also talked to the fire chief … about making contact with Portland to see what they have done. We are going to have some of the very same issues: What if someone doesn’t pay for this, how do you enforce it? There are just a whole number of issues.”

2011 PROPOSAL CARRIED $68,000 PRICE

The 2011 proposal called for creating a new, full-time position within the Brunswick Fire Department to conduct inspections of apartment buildings with three or more units. The inspector would look for fire detection or suppression systems, adequate egress from units as well as fire separation between units – all factors intended to help people escape a blaze and make fires easier to knock down for firefighters.

At the time, 194 buildings in Brunswick containing 1,176 units would have been subject to inspection. Currently, a deputy chief in charge of fire prevention conducts inspections for licensing of new buildings or in response to complaints.

The $68,000 price to cover wages and benefits under an expanded program would have been paid through a per-unit fee charged to landlords. Councilors expressed strong support this week for exploring the same funding method.

Rental unit inspection procedures vary widely from town to town. While some communities, such as Westbrook, try to inspect every multi-unit building on a rolling basis, many communities only inspect existing buildings in response to complaints or observed violations.

Brunswick, Bangor and several other Maine communities are looking to strengthen their inspection regimes for rental units as Portland prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of one of Maine’s deadliest fires in decades.

PORTLAND HAS STEPPED UP ENFORCEMENT

Five people were killed in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2014, when a fire swept through a duplex that was divided into multiple apartments. A sixth person later died of injuries sustained in the fire.

Investigators determined that a cigarette discarded on the front porch started the fire. They also found the building did not have functioning smoke detectors or adequate means of egress from the building. A grand jury indicted the landlord of the Noyes Street building, Gregory Nisbet, on six charges of manslaughter as well as misdemeanor code violations for not having working smoke detectors, clear stairwells and a second means of escape from an upstairs bedroom.

The incident focused a critical spotlight on Portland’s lax fire inspection program in a city with thousands of rental apartments. The number of annual inspections had declined in the years preceding the fire, and proactive inspections were suspended in the months before the fire as Portland’s Fire Department sought additional technology and training for the program.

Since that fire, Portland has stepped up enforcement, created a new housing safety office and hired a director to oversee three new inspectors. That office will be funded with a $35-per-unit fee charged to landlords, although owners could receive credits for safety measures installed in their buildings.

Brunswick Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson said that even though the tragic Portland fire thrust inspection issues into the public spotlight, it was a priority for his department before the 2011 proposal was crafted, and since then.

“It never went away,” Emerson said. “It has come back into the public view, but it has always been there for us.”

IMPORTANCE OF A DEDICATED INSPECTOR

It was too early to say how often one person could inspect nearly 1,200 units, he said, noting that many inspections require multiple visits to follow up on any issues. But Emerson said it would be important to have a dedicated inspector because, under the current system, he or other fire department staff can be called away from inspection meetings at any moment to respond to a 911 call.

Knight, with Brunswick’s Master Plan Implementation Committee, said the group voted unanimously to recommend that the fire department request the additional full-time position in its 2017 budget proposal.

“We feel that Brunswick should step up and should embrace this as Portland has done because we want to be a town that really values its citizens and their safety,” Knight said.

Representatives for the Midcoast Area Housing Association, which includes Brunswick landlords, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said most landlords in Portland were not happy about being assessed an additional fee, but that the $35-per-unit fee was not “draconian.”

Vitalius credited Portland officials with engaging landlords during the development of the program. He urged Brunswick to “get all of the stakeholders to the table.”

“I think because we were involved in the process and were involved as they were negotiating the fee, that was really the key,” he said. “If they had just shown up and said, ‘We are doing this,’ there would have been a different reaction.”