An apartment fire that killed six people in Minneapolis this month is prompting new scrutiny of the city's decision to transfer inspection duties of large rental properties to the Fire Department. City officials had not checked the upstairs units for fire-code violations in at least 16 years, and tenants have described serious violations including exposed wiring and missing smoke detectors.
The Minneapolis City Council approved the move in 2004, after the Fire Department said that doing so would save the jobs of 15 firefighters. The duties were previously handled by Regulatory Services, which is still responsible for inspecting smaller apartment buildings.
A tenants organization used the word "dangerous" to describe the decision to divide the work between two city agencies, because no single department head can be held accountable. Also, two fire captains have told the Star Tribune they don't have adequate training to carry out their jobs as housing inspectors. And Minneapolis City Council members are seeking answers on whether the new system is working.
Funerals will be held over the next two weeks for three children and three adults who died in the early-morning fire April 2.
In an April 9 e-mail to council members, two board members of the Minnesota Tenants Union blasted the city for not doing more to avoid what they called a "preventable or escapable fire."
"It appears the safety of these dwelling units may not have been protected as intended,'' wrote Peter Brown and Donjia Johnson.
Two Minneapolis fire captains criticized the department's training as inadequate, saying they got only four hours of instruction before they started inspecting buildings five years ago.
"What can you learn in four hours?" asked one of the captains, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"I definitely lack expertise," said the other captain. "I have a list of what is a violation and what isn't, but I don't exactly know what it means."
During an inspection, the captains oversee two to three firefighters who look for violations. They carry a checklist, but both captains conceded they don't always know if they are catching everything. The housing code is huge and complex, and the captains said they sometimes can't answer questions from the firefighters they supervise. When told of these concerns, Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn said there's a system in place to help answer questions from firefighters about the inspection process. Captains can contact the fire prevention bureau and trained inspectors will answer questions, assist in an inspection or handle the job themselves.
"It has been clearly voiced how that procedure works," she said.
One captain said he doesn't like to seek such help because he doesn't have confidence in some of the people who work there, and they seem overloaded with work.
City Council Member Cam Gordon agreed that firefighters may need more training.
"I have heard mixed stories, not a whole lot of stories," said Gordon, vice chair of a committee that oversees inspections. "Some people have said the Fire Department does a good job and is competent and they are happy with the inspections they have gotten. But I have also heard the concern that maybe there should be professional housing inspectors doing these inspections."
Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, chair of the Regulatory Services Committee, said she is concerned about the quality of the Fire Department's inspections. She said reports show fire inspectors are not finding as many violations as their counterparts in regulatory services.
"There certainly does appear to be a mismatch there," Glidden said Thursday.
Tom Thornberg, president of the Minneapolis Firefighters Union Local 82, said a lack of training has never been raised at a union meeting.
Council members will be asking tough questions of the heads of both city agencies in the next few weeks, when during an annual briefing administrators will be asked to explain how their departments are handling their inspection chores.
Council Member Gary Schiff, whose ward includes the site of the Lake Street blaze, said his first question will be: "Is it working? Is the city conducting an inspections program that protects renters and ensures the safety and quality of our housing stock?"
The last major upheaval in the city's inspection process took place almost 20 years ago, after a fire in an overcrowded home prompted city officials to crack down on negligent landlords. In 1991, the city started requiring every landlord to obtain a license, and final approval isn't granted until a property passed a fire safety inspection.
It was a massive task for the city. A decade later, inspectors were so far behind they figured it would take 15 to 17 years to complete the first round of inspections.
City leaders thought they found a solution in 2003. To protect the city and keep as many firefighters on the job as possible, the council gave the Fire Department the job of inspecting nearly 3,000 rental properties, accounting for more than 47,000 apartment units. The job came with nearly $1 million in fee income for the underfunded department, which promised to complete the task in five years.
The Fire Department's inspection duties grew again last year to include commercial properties, whose owners were assessed a new fee to bolster the Fire Department's revenue.
City officials say they have made significant progress in cutting the backlog of inspections. Regulatory services inspectors have inspected all but 1,980 of the 15,016 rental properties containing one to three units. The Fire Department has inspected all but 259 of the city's 2,967 larger rental properties, which represent 47,736 dwelling units. The city hopes to eliminate the backlog by March 2011.