St. Paul firefighters, inspectors talk about teaming up

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2014 - 5:35 AM

After two fatal blazes, they look at how to best catch up on inspections of city’s rental units.

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St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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In the wake of two fatal fires this year, the St. Paul Fire Department is looking to help city inspectors make sure that rentals are up to snuff.

The fires occurred on properties where inspections for safety code compliance had not taken place or were overdue.

Fire officials and Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) leaders recently began discussing ways how the Fire Department could help with a “backlog of inspections” of residential rental buildings, St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said.

The details of any possible plan, however, are preliminary, he said.

Starting in 2007, the city, through the DSI Fire Certificate of Occupancy program, began inspecting all single-family and duplex rental properties in the city. Previously, it had inspected only buildings with three rental units or more.

But Robert Humphrey, a DSI spokesman, said it quickly became apparent that the workload would be formidable.

By the end of 2013, the city had identified close to 13,000 one- or two-unit rental properties and 3,400 rental properties with three units to be inspected.

“There was more than what they ever thought there would be,” he said of the number of single-family and duplex units to be inspected.

With so many rentals in the city, it has been difficult for the DSI staff members to handle all of the demand, Humphrey said.

Added Zaccard, “They don’t have the staff to keep up with all the buildings they have to inspect.”

In March, 25-year-old Dan Trabant died when the home he shared with roommates caught fire because of an unattended candle. While several smoke alarms were in the house, only one worked, authorities said.

The building had a provisional certificate of occupancy at the time of the fire, which made it legal to rent, but it hadn’t yet been inspected for a fire certificate of occupancy.

In January, Christopher Meusburger, 30, died in a fire at an 11-unit townhouse complex.

Authorities said the fire detectors had been disabled in Meusburger’s apartment and the one above it. While the building had been inspected in 2009 for a fire certificate of occupancy, it wasn’t reinspected in 2012, as it should have been.

As it stands now, new rental owners pay a fee each year for a provisional certificate that allows occupancy and that can be renewed until DSI is able to inspect the property and grant a fire certificate of occupancy. That certificate shows that the building complies with state and local safety codes.

Among other requirements, inspectors make sure there is at least one window in each bedroom that could serve as an appropriate escape route in case of fire and an operable smoke detector outside each sleeping area.

The number and severity of any violations determine how often DSI returns — every one, three or five years — for reinspection.

Humphrey said the city is proactive in looking for nonregistered rentals. In 2013, the department discovered 1,741 properties that hadn’t been identified as rentals — the most since the program began.

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