TEMPERANCE - The leaders of Bedford Township's two main business groups say they don't have a problem with the township fire department inspecting local businesses for fire safety problems. They're just happy to have been asked for their thoughts before the inspector showed up at their members' doors.
"It's refreshing. It's nice that they're considerate enough to involve us in the process," laughed Chuck Faller, the president of the Bedford Industrial Commercial Association, or BICA.
Mr. Faller's group was formed 18 months ago by local business people who were upset when the township passed new zoning ordinances governing commercial architecture, lighting, and landscaping.
They complained bitterly at the time that those requirements were enacted without any input from business owners. Township officials countered that they received the same notifications
that every other resident did, but chose not to participate.
Brad LaVoy, Mr. Faller's counterpart at the more established Bedford Business Association, agreed that soliciting input from local business interests was a welcome sign from township government. Still, he said his organization hadn't heard from the township yet, and hadn't formed an opinion on the fire inspector proposal.
"I guess every individual business would have an individual approach on that right now," Mr. LaVoy said.
The township board last week agreed to open up a fire inspector position to applicants, but won't make a hiring decision until after consulting with the BBA and BICA on what the position will entail. A handful of township board members, most notably trustee Arnold Jennings, have expressed concerns that a fire inspector has the potential to wreak financial havoc on some longtime local businesses whose facilities aren't up to current fire safety standards.
But officials with the township's fire department have repeatedly tried to allay those concerns by saying that the fire inspector would take what they dubbed a "velvet glove" approach to potential violations. They said the township would provide plenty of opportunities for businesses to correct potential problems on their own before incurring any penalties.
"I guess their concerns would be that we would negatively impact them financially by making them upgrade their buildings to bring them up to code," Bedford Township Fire Chief John Bofa said. "But that's not going to happen."
Instead, the fire inspector the chief envisions will point out deficiencies to business owners - things like having handrails on stairwells and emergency lighting the works - and then work with business owners to make their buildings safer and more fireproof.
"We're not going to come in and dictate things to them," Chief Bofia said. "This first time around we'll find a lot of things, and then after that we'll hardly find any. I was a business owner for a long time, and I hardly ever checked my fire extinguishers to see if they were charged because I just didn't have time. Just doing that will be a service to the community."
Chief Bofia said he also hopes that a certified inspector will allow the township to take over inspections of local school buildings and elderly care centers, a task that, right now, must be done at the state level because the township has no certified fire inspector.
"We're really just catching up to best practices," Chief Bofia said, adding that the commercial inspections will also aide the department in completing fire plans for every business in Bedford Township as well as an inventory of what hazardous materials might be stored on-hand.
When the position is filled, the fire inspector will be the second full-time paid position in the otherwise volunteer 65-person department.
Mr. Faller said that any trepidation among his members about fire inspections is probably unwarranted.
"I have no doubt that the township will be reasonable to work with," Mr. Faller said. "It's going to be practicable, reasonable stuff on [the fire inspector's] end. I don't believe that they will deliberately make it difficult on anybody. I'm really pretty comfortable that it will all work."
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