Rochester’s fire chief said it’s likely fire hazards are lurking in buildings throughout the city.
“The bottom line is we don’t know,” Chief Eric Kerska said. ”We don’t know because we haven’t been able to look.”
The Rochester Fire Department has had three people doing building inspections since the department was founded in 1866.
“Since 1970, we’ve grown by 50,000 people,” Kerska said. “That’s a short period of time, and the fire department has grown by one fire company in that period of time.”
The growth has left the city’s three assistant fire marshals overwhelmed by inspections. While they are tasked to examine buildings from the planning stages to demolition, Kerska said recent inspections have stopped with occupancy, unless complaints arise.
“We don’t have enough people to keep up with new construction,” he said.
While Kerska said inspections are a key part of the the fire marshal role, he said education and community engagement should also be part of the effort.
“The purpose of the fire marshal in any community is to prevent tragedy, not just fires,” he said. “It’s a life-safety position.”
Today, firefighters are filling the education role of fire marshals, which can add pressure to crews needed to respond to calls.
The state mandates the fire chief appoint a fire marshal, which Kerska has done by selecting Jason Whitney, but he said the role is largely in name only.
“We meet the current requirements, but we don’t necessarily meet the spirit of the law,” he said, noting Whitney’s time is largely filled with new construction inspections with the department’s two other assistant fire marshals.
In the past 11 months, the new fire chief has been working on a strategic plan for the department, which he will present to the Rochester City Council on Monday.
He said expanding the fire marshal staff from three to five is a key part of his plan.
“The No. 1 risk to the community is the lack of capacity in the fire marshal’s office to prevent tragedy,” he said.
When the council reviewed the recommended 2020 city budget, the two new positions weren’t included in the proposed $387.6 million, but City Administrator Steve Rymer said they could be added without heavy reliance on property taxes.
The estimated $280,000 cost of expanding the department next year would largely be covered by fees related to the work being done by the department.
Rymer and Kerska proposed increasing fees on current fire marshal inspections by doubling the cost for new construction and remodeling inspections and increasing the cost of annual inspections on specific workplace hazards to $150.
Raising the fees would provide approximately $175,000.
Another $50,000 could be obtained with a proposed $15 administrative fee related to annual inspections of sprinklers and other equipment. While the city uses the service of an outside agency to maintain inspection schedules, Kerska said fire marshal staff must review reports and conduct some inspections.
Another $30,000 is expected to be seen as more inspections of existing buildings are conducted.
“These are all rough estimates to give a sense of how we might go through funding additions to the fire marshal staff,” Rymer said, noting the projections show $25,000 could be needed from the city’s property tax levy.
Kerska said the proposed fee increases — potentially the first in nearly 20 years — are aligned with similar communities in the state.
The new fee, while well within the $5 to $300 seen nationally, would be the second in the state. Kerska said only Brainerd charges for administration of sprinkler and equipment inspections today.
“We’re in line nationally, but we’re higher in Minnesota,” he said, noting Brainerd charges $5 per inspection.
During budget discussions, several City Council members voiced support for the plan, without specifically adding to the budget at this point.
Council Member Nick Campion said it could delay future costs related to expanding the fire department.
“Things like doing proper inspections and having all the equipment in place and getting the training today is what makes things affordable,” he said.
Council Member Mark Bilderback said it also helps protect assets throughout the city as new buildings are erected alongside older structures, which may not have been inspected when they changed hands.
“We put brand-new buildings right next to these, and we are expecting them to monitor fire safety when they are not checking buildings that have been there with different occupancies or ownerships,” he said.
Kerska said such concerns are what’s driving the need to expand inspection and education efforts.
“The odds are there are buildings out there with some dangerous conditions that we don’t know about,” he said.