Mpls. needs to step up fire checks, marshal says

  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • April 20, 2010 - 10:29 PM

The state fire marshal is recommending changes to Minneapolis' inspection practices that could have revealed rampant fire hazards in the Lake Street building where six people died if the city had adopted those rules when it overhauled the system in 2004.

State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl didn't criticize the department's performance, but he said the city should significantly increase the frequency of fire code inspections and streamline its system of checking buildings that include both apartments and commercial tenants.

City inspectors hadn't visited the six apartments above McMahon's Irish Pub for at least 16 years, even though they found multiple violations in the downstairs bar as recently as March 15. The entire building was scheduled for an inspection in July, and surviving tenants told the Star Tribune that inspectors would have found a broken smoke detector, exposed wiring, missing fire extinguishers and other violations. One tenant said the problems dated back years.

The cause of the April 2 fire remains under investigation, and it's unclear whether code violations played any role in the city's deadliest fire in 24 years. Still, City Council members and others have raised questions about missed opportunities for the city to ensure the safety of tenants in the aging building.

In the best-case scenario, inspectors would return to apartment buildings and other "high-hazard" properties every year, not every five years, according to the fire marshal's report. At a minimum, routine code inspections should take place every three years to account for "changes in staff at the property, new hazards being introduced and construction/modeling changes," according to the report.

In an interview Tuesday, Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson didn't rule out annual inspections, but he said he will need a bigger budget if city officials want him to shorten the five-year cycle.

"Ideally, would you love to be able to walk out the door and do them all? Yes," Jackson said. But "I can't inspect more frequently unless I have the resources."

The state report, done at Jackson's request, focused on the city's inspection record at 3001 E. Lake St., the site of the deadly fire. After reviewing three inspections of the downstairs bar in 12 years, the fire marshal concluded that the city did a "thorough" job on those visits.

Some City Council members have faulted the Fire Department for not inspecting the upstairs apartments after documenting deficiencies in the bar, but Rosendahl said the city was simply following its existing protocols. Still, the fire marshal said it makes more sense for inspectors to review an entire mixed-use building in a single visit, rather than checking commercial tenants on one visit and inspecting apartments some other time.

Jackson said his department changed its policy earlier this year to start doing top-to-bottom inspections of buildings with both commercial and residential uses. After the fire, Jackson told Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council members that he was ordering immediate inspections of all uninspected commercial buildings containing upstairs apartments, similar to the E. Lake Street property.

Jackson said the city's Department of Regulatory Services, which shares inspection duties with the Fire Department, is developing a plan to do more frequent inspections of properties with a history of violations. He couldn't say Tuesday how frequently those properties would be inspected, or when the new "tiered" inspection policy would begin, but he said any step-up in inspections will cost money he doesn't have.

Jackson, who was appointed fire chief in 2008, said he "inherited" the current schedule of inspections every five years, which was adopted in 2004 as an improvement over the 15- to 17-year turnaround in inspections. In St. Paul, by contrast, the most troubled properties get annual inspections, while the best are inspected every five years.

City Council members said Tuesday that the fire marshal's report answered some questions.

"This report recommends minor tweaks rather than a major overhaul," said City Council Member Gary Schiff, who previously described the city's failure to inspect the apartments for 16 years as "appalling." "Obviously we have much more work to do to evaluate our inspections program," he said Tuesday.

Council members are looking to an internal report in mid-May that will evaluate how well the city's inspection practices are working.

In 2004, the Fire Department took over responsibility for inspecting apartment buildings with four units or more, as well as apartments in mixed-use buildings. The 98-year-old building that housed McMahon's Irish Pub and the six apartments were among the last uninspected units that resulted from an inspection backlog that had persisted for nearly 20 years.

The 6 a.m. fire erupted in a corner apartment and swept through all six flats above McMahon's Irish Pub. Three generations of the Gervais family had arrived only hours before to stay with Ryan Richner, a bartender at McMahon's who lived upstairs. Three children, their father and grandmother were killed, along with Richner.

The funeral for the Gervais family will take place at 2 p.m. today at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. • 612-673-4271 • 612-673-7382

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