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Published: Saturday, 9/30/2006

Michigan fire inspections often late

BY LAREN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Inspector Aric Alexander, left, with the state fire marshal's office, examines the work that has been completed at Mercy Memorial Hospital in Monroe with Paul Micallef, right, a contractor's representative. Inspector Aric Alexander, left, with the state fire marshal's office, examines the work that has been completed at Mercy Memorial Hospital in Monroe with Paul Micallef, right, a contractor's representative.
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Fire inspections at some Michigan schools, colleges, hospitals, adult foster care homes, and nursing homes aren't being completed annually as required by law, according to the state auditor general's office.

A report released earlier this month rated Michigan's inspection program for buildings of public assembly where 50 or more people may gather as "moderately effective" on a three-tiered rating system. The other ratings are "effective" and "not effective."

According to the report, 431 of the nearly 1,300 adult foster care homes and nursing homes in the state were inspected anywhere from one day to 575 days late. The audit examined records from Oct. 1, 2002, through March 31, 2005.

Andy Neumann, who was appointed Michigan's acting state fire marshal in June, said the program's 26 fire inspectors annually inspect more than 8,000 places throughout the state.

Mr. Neumann said funding is "a large part of our problem" for the late inspections, which is why he is determined to convince state legislators of the importance of the program.

Neumann Neumann
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"By not doing them [inspections], you could be putting people at risk," he said. "Fortunately, nothing has happened. We're just creating better safeguards for them by doing them in a timely fashion."

The inspection program receives about $4 million from the state's general fund, with a small percentage of costs covered by fees charged for site-plan reviews of hospitals and schools, he said.

That money, however, doesn't cover the additional costs to inspect facilities of public assembly - which include public buildings or rooms that can accommodate 50 or more people.

Mr. Neumann estimated Michigan has about 100,000 places that fall under that category.

That forces communities with their own local fire departments to inspect such facilities.

"It's always a struggle and battle to see what can be funded," he said.

"Our intent now is to educate these legislators and make them aware of our concerns and see what they're willing to do."

Liz Boyd, press secretary to Gov. Jennifer Granholm - a Democrat who is seeking reelection in November - said Michigan's budget is tight, but the fire safety inspection program is vital to the state.

"We're very supportive of that program," Ms. Boyd said. "We'll review recommendations [for additional funding] and see what our options are for going forward."

The fire safety inspection program is part of the Bureau of Fire Services, which Governor Granholm recently established within the Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

Fire inspections were previously overseen by the Michigan State Police.

The governor also signed a $3.7 million supplemental budget increase for fire protection grants and $1.2 million for the state fire investigative unit last year.

Now that the inspection program is under the Bureau of Fire Services, Mr. Neumann said inspectors have been able to get up to date on inspections because they can completely focus on life safety codes.

"I can't speak to what happened in the last 10 years, but I have every confidence that when you come back to audit us in 10 years, this won't be one of your issues," he said.

Mr. Neumann said he wants to hire five more inspectors to help alleviate some of the workload, and wants money to reimburse local fire departments like Bedford Township that do their own inspections.

The Bedford Township Fire Department has one fire inspector, which makes it "pretty difficult" to get to all of the 640 public, commercial, and industrial sites that require inspection, Fire Chief John Bofia said.

The Monroe Fire Department also has just one fire inspector, so that inspector prioritizes buildings and inspects the ones where problems could pose the most risk to the most people.

Last year, 460 buildings in the city were inspected.

"We have the little mom-and-pop gas stations that we don't get to on a regular basis because we only have one fire marshal," said Monroe Fire Chief William Bert.

The funding for the fire inspector comes out of the city general fund, and Chief Bert said some state reimbursement would be helpful.

But he acknowledged a lack of government funds is a constant problem in many areas.

"When you have one inspector, and the state says they don't have enough people or money to send out annually, it becomes a real drain on a local jurisdiction," he said.



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