MBFAA wants better enforcement of fire alarm inspections

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

PORTLAND, Maine—When this city instituted a new inspection sticker program for fire alarms in commercial businesses and multi-unit residences a few years ago, the industry supported it as a way to ensure public safety and create a level playing field for local fire alarm companies.

But now the Maine Burglar & Fire Alarm Association says the city is not properly enforcing the inspection requirements, creating a disadvantage for companies that do follow the regulation, which Portland was the first city in Maine to require when it was put place since 2011.

The inspections are done by alarm companies, so some have been telling their property owner customers they need to pay for an annual fire alarm inspection and a valid inspection sticker sold by the city, according to Rich Brobst Jr., president of the MBFAA and a NICET IV-level master electrician with Falmouth, Maine-based Protection Professionals. However, he said, other companies are ignoring the law because the city isn’t making them comply with it.

“I know as a company, our company, we’ve been doing it, but some of these [fire alarm] vendors are saying: ‘Until they make me do it, I’m not doing it,’” Brobst told Security Systems News. “We are trying to set a higher standard but the owner is coming to us and saying, ‘Why are you setting this standard? No one else is doing this. Why are you costing me more money?’”

Capt. Chris Pirone of Portland’s Fire Prevention Bureau acknowledged that there is work to be done.

“It is a concern of ours that not all of the buildings with alarm systems have the inspection stickers,” he told SSN.

He said the city is trying to figure out how to address the problems with limited staff.

“With our staffing reductions, we’re not inspecting all the properties annually, which we’d love to do and we’re trying to address how we’re going to do that,” said Pirone, who said there is a staff of two in his office.

Firefighters also do safety inspections when they’re not responding to emergencies or in training, he said.

But in the next few months, Pirone said, the city is planning on “refocusing” its inspections and concentrating on inspecting categories of buildings, such as those with master box fire alarm systems. “Any building in the city that has a master box fire alarm system will be inspected annually so that would be a good chunk of the fire alarms that would be required to have a sticker,” he said.

Also, he said, the city checks on whether fire alarm systems are inspected in connection with the building permits it signs off on. “It’s a condition of the permit that a sticker be on the system,” he said. His office processes about 3,000 such permits each year, he said.

The city also wants to educate property owners about the inspection requirements, because ultimately it is their responsibility to make sure their buildings meet all city laws and requirements, Pirone said. He praised alarm companies that are complying with the law for educating owners about it.

And he said he understands the companies’ concerns. “I can sense their frustration when people are doing what they’re expected to do and their competitors aren’t,” Pirone said. “... I encourage them to give me that feedback and we’ll do our best with what we have to kind of make things better for everybody.”

Brobst also said the same haphazard enforcement is going on in South Portland, which adopted the inspection sticker program this year.

“They need to be enforced by the fire department in both towns consistently,” Brobst said. “If they’re not enforcing [the regulations] then it makes it a challenge.”

But Deputy Chief Miles Haskell of the South Portland Fire Department said that because the ordinance is so new there, the fire department hasn’t had time to enforce it.

He explained that once a year, the fire department inspects all businesses and also residences with three more family units. But the annual inspections just started Feb. 1 so it will take a year to determine whether businesses and residences have their stickers or should be issued a citation for not complying, Haskell said.