NORWALK, Conn. – With the Fire Marshal’s office reporting it’s as much as four years behind in code inspections, the Fire Commission on Tuesday approved hiring a fifth full-time fire inspector.
The Commission also agreed that two part-time inspectors the city has employed on a per diem basis since November should continue until next December.
Fire Marshal Broderick Sawyer expressed gratitude for the added help, but said afterwards that, with the increasing demands on his office, he could use at least 10 inspectors.
Sawyer noted that approximately 1,500 additional apartment units are planned for construction in the city in the next three to four years, which would double the number of multi-family dwellings in Norwalk.
The Fire Commissioners had been evaluating the backlog of inspections for several months, leading to its decision to add an inspector.
During the Commission’s discussion, Fire Chief Gino Gatto mentioned that Norwalk paid a settlement toward a lawsuit filed after an October 2014 fire at 45 Wall St. Gatto said the plaintiff alleged the city was aware of numerous building, fire and health code violations there that it allowed to go uncorrected.
Sawyer said state statutes require annual inspections of bars and restaurants, movie theaters, facilities providing residential boarding and care, and residences for three or more families, and said the city has roughly 1,500 multi-family occupancies.
In addition, he said, there are structures requiring inspections every two, three or four years.
In all, Gatto said, the city is obligated to perform about 2,000 annual inspections.
A complex such as the Waypointe apartments on West Avenue “could take weeks,” he said.
Adding inspectors “would help us to put a dent in the inspections that we have to do,” Gatto said. “It’s not going to cure everything. But it definitely would probably in a court of law at least say that we’re trying to do our part.”
The decision to appoint an additional inspector was approved by Mayor Harry Rilling, who is also a Fire Commissioner, and Commissioner Oscar Destruge. The decision required their consent since the position is being filled by a firefighter, which has a lower salary than inspector.
Rilling used Tuesday’s meeting to defend the city’s inspection process, saying, “There’s always a lot of back and forth about Norwalk not inspecting their properties. You inspect properties, sometimes with the Health Department when you find a violation that the Health Department needs to follow up on, or Code Enforcement, Planning and Zoning, or Bill Ireland’s (Building Department) office. You coordinate and you have that follow up.
“For anybody to say that the City of Norwalk does not inspect properties and take enforcement action is totally misleading.”
“Right. They’re uninformed,” Gatto concurred.
Expanding afterwards on Rilling’s remarks, Sawyer said, “If we find in our inspections an illegal basement (apartment) or more units than should be in the property, we cite them from the fire code side and contact zoning, health, building, any other department to do their end of it. And we actually go back out with them when they’re ready to do the inspection.”
The tricky part, he said, is one- and two-family dwellings, because the Fire Marshall’s office has limited jurisdiction. In those cases, he said, the Health Department leads seeking corrections at an occupancy because it has jurisdiction.
“So it all works together and it’s pretty efficient,” Sawyer said. “We get into a lot of places that you’re not going to hear about. We just get it done.”
Sawyer informed the Commissioners that two of his inspectors were currently only certified to perform code inspections, but were beginning training Wednesday to conduct fire investigations.
Sawyer told the Commissioners that during January, his office sent out 197 letters advising property owners that their properties was due for inspection, and conducted 155 inspections, 28 plan reviews and 31 fire investigations.