A South Portland firefighter recently stopped into a local business for an inspection and found too many boxes blocking a back exit. He told the  single worker on duty that the stock needed to be moved so the door would be accessible in case of an emergency.

“Can you watch the floor for me while I go move it?” the employee asked.

The fire department stops in at retailers on a weekly basis during November and December, when numbers of shipments and shoppers are both high. Robb Couture, the public information officer, said unfilled jobs are causing more code violations than ever.

Businesses are ordering extra goods to combat supply chain issues, but they have fewer employees than in the past. So there are too many boxes and not enough workers to get them out of the way. They are piling up in back rooms and even in store aisles.

“Folks are literally not able to get the manpower to move the stuff when it comes in,” Couture said. “It’s sitting in access hallways. We’ve actually seen people putting raw stock onto the floor, pallets and bins, because they have no one that can stock the shelves.”

Curtis Picard, CEO and president of the Retail Association of Maine, encouraged people not to wait if they see an item they want on a shelf because it might not be replaced when it is gone. He wasn’t aware of the uptick in code violations described by the South Portland Fire Department, but he said businesses are still navigating a slew of problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think most retailers try to have a really good relationship with the local fire department and police,” Picard said. “It’s a relationship that is mutually beneficial to both sides. When there are issues, I think stores would want to try to address them as quickly as possible.”

Couture said the city does hundreds of inspections around the holidays, but the process is mostly informal and educational. He said he didn’t want to single out any business by name, and that firefighters have seen this problem from convenience stores to big box stores this year.

He shared a photo from an unidentified business, in which cardboard boxes and wooden pallets obscured not just the emergency exit but also the fire alarm and fire extinguisher. On the part of the door that was visible, a faded red sign said, “Do not block.”

That pile could prevent people from getting out of a building in the event of an emergency, Couture said, but it could also prevent first responders from getting in to help someone who was trapped or unable to move.

The department has the ability to shut a business down if a violation is really bad or the staff is unwilling to fix it, but Couture said firefighters usually focus on finding a solution that will keep the doors open. They might, for instance, help a business work out a deal to put overflow in a neighbor’s storeroom or rent extra space off site.

While backroom issues aren’t visible to the average shopper, some businesses are leaving pallets or open boxes in aisles, Couture said. If customers see potential safety violations, they should speak to a manager or contact their local officials.

“Our job is really enforcement and education,” he said. “We explain why we need this door open. The general public doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about emergencies like we do.”


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