Over the past few years, Burlington has tried to make its rental units more fireproof, or at least easier to evacuate during a fire.
In Vermont, any residential property in which people sleep, excluding single family homes, must meet fire codes and be inspected, either by the state or by a municipality. In Burlington, code inspections are done by the City, and there have been twice as many this year as there were four years ago. And only about ten per cent pass inspection on the first round.
Code Enforcement Officer Bill Ward says there are about 9500 multi-unit dwellings in Burlington. Some are apartments or condos, others are hotels, and still others are rooming houses, where tenants share common spaces like kitchens and bathrooms.
Ward used to be a policeman, so he’s seen some devastating fires, especially in the winter, when access by firefighters can be difficult, and hoses freeze up.
“Those are the ones—I think there was one on Flynn Avenue several years ago that strikes me, only because I was one of the first people on the scene with the firefights, and seeing the sheer devastation that went with it because it had smoldered for a while,” Ward said.
When Ward took over fire code enforcement in Burlington three years ago, there was a huge backlog of properties needing inspection. He says the five inspectors have caught up, so every rental unit is now examined every three years. State law requires hard-wired, interconnected smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. New buildings with rental units or public spaces must have sprinklers. But Burlington’s fire safety ordinance is more demanding than state law. For example, indoor sofas may not be placed outdoors because they can attract careless smokers beyond the range of smoke detectors. Ward says heating systems in public buildings—the number one cause of fire statewide-- must also pass muster.
“So your furnace has to have an inspection sticker just like your car. Those heat tags verify that it’s been inspected by a professional who certifies that it’s not giving off carbon monoxide, it’s operated within normal manufacturers specifications. And that inspection sticker is good for a two year period,” Ward said.
On a blistering hot July day, Ward drove across town from his office to a rooming house in the old North End, where he met the landlord, Mark Cross, and fellow code inspector Kim Ianelli.
Cross rents ten rooms in this rambling wooden building exclusively to men in recovery from addictions. This was a follow-up visit to check on whether code violations have been corrected.
Cross pointed out a new railing leading up steps indoors. The old one was too narrow to grip easily. He’s also installed several new smoke detectors, as required by law. Sprinklers are optional in this old building, and he doesn’t have them. But as inspector Ianelli noted, the detectors are not all properly located or interconnected, so Cross will need to correct that if he doesn’t want to be fined.
The detectors beeped loudly when tested.
“Good that they work,” Ward said.
“Well, that’s what I was saying,” Cross agreed. “At least for now I could have them in here, I can leave them up.”
“And these plates will be good to use,” Ianelli noted, pointing to the detectors.
“What we look for is an email from you so we don’t have to come back tonight or tomorrow documenting what has been done,” Ward told Cross.
For Burlington’s larger real estate developers, smoke detectors are a minor expense in the overall budget. But for Cross, who does many building repairs himself, price is an issue when choosing equipment.
“This is fifty five dollars, this is eighteen dollars, so believe me if I can use the smoke detectors…there’s ten rooms here. Eighteen dollars a room is better than fifty-five dollars,” Cross explained.
But Cross didn’t fight the inspectors. In fact, in the parking lot, he thanked them.
“It needs to be done, I’m more comfortable. I’m going to sleep better tonight knowing that these guys are safe,” Cross said.
There are hefty fines—up to two hundred and fifty dollars a day-- for repeat inspection visits, so in general Ward says corrections are made quickly, unless landlords choose to appeal—a rarity, he says.
The cost of all this oversight is covered by fees paid by property owners. The first inspection is free, but subsequent visits are $75 each. Landlords must also satisfy inspectors from other agencies who look at things like plumbing and heating, electrical systems, access for emergency vehicles, and quality of construction.
“We cannot do this unless we have the cooperation of landlords and property owners and property maintenance workers who work with us to make the units safe,” Ward said.
And Ward says several city agencies share inspection information, such as the records for 77 Walnut Street, on a database.
Prospective tenants can also view the permitting and inspection history of rental property on the city’s website. Those city inspection reports tend to be much more detailed than the often handwritten notes by state inspectors covering smaller communities.
But even though Burlington has beefed up its code enforcement, fires do happen.
According to state records, in 2010 there were 90 structure fires in Burlington. In 2012, there were 109. Ward says his aim is to make sure that all tenants are warned in time to get out of harm’s way.
VPR looks at these issues in our week-long series Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires. Visit the series online or hear it beginning Monday August 12 at 7:50 a.m. during Morning Edition.