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City Council adopts fire watch ordinance

by Eric Stearley

eric@thepaperofwabash.com

In September, Wabash City Fire Chief Robert Mullett announced the enforcement of a longstanding state regulation involving fire safety. When a fire safety system goes down, the owner of the building must have someone working as a fire watch, checking the building for fire, or risk being ordered to evacuate the building by Chief Mullett. On Dec. 9, the Wabash City Council responded with a unanimous vote to pass General Ordinance No. 8, putting a fire watch system in place.

On the books since 2003, the fire watch requirement has been largely ignored by the area’s former state fire marshal. The newly appointed marshal has made it clear that the public safety policy will be enforced. Key to this regulation is the requirement that the individual covering the watch be a certified firefighter.

“It’s something we had to address,” said city council member Jim Wenrich. “It’s one of those regulations that recently, with the new inspector, he decided, ‘well, were going to start enforcing this.’ The problem with this is a small fire department.”

While some cities’ fire departments have a large enough staff to cover these situations with light-duty firefighters, smaller cities, like Wabash, do not. This is what made the creation of a new ordinance so important.

With this ordinance in place, owners of Class 1 buildings should be able to more easily access a trained firefighter to perform a fire watch. When there is a fire safety system failure, the responsible party is required to call Chief Mullett to report the problem. He recently compiled a list of certified volunteer and retired firefighters interested in working as a fire watch, from which he can make calls to find coverage. A firefighter assigned to a fire watch can work a maximum of two consecutive four-hour shifts.

“My position and the city’s position on it has never changed,” said Chief Mullett. “Ultimately, we want to follow what the law is, and we want to keep people safe. That’s ultimately what it’s about. Unfortunately, that stuff comes with an expense.“

Building owners who utilize the city’s fire watch system will be charged $50 per hour for the service. The money will be deposited into the Ambulance Fund “to be used as other Ambulance Fund amounts are used.” Though the main purpose of the Ambulance fund is to purchase new ambulances as needed, the money is used for a variety of department costs, including employee overtime. This is similar to the way that funds collected in exchange for paramedic attendance at high school football games are handled.

The firefighter will be paid $25 per hour on weekdays and $35 per hour on weekends and holidays. According to City Attorney Doug Lehman, the remaining money is used to cover three types of related expenses.

To address the issue of liability, those appointed to fire watch will be employees of the city, covered by the city’s insurance. Because of the employee status, the city is responsible for social security and unemployment taxes.

Secondly, the money will help to cover the administrative costs of maintaining the pool of potential fire watch coverage. In addition to covering to cost of having someone contact and recruit someone to cover a specific fire watch as needed, the money will help cover the cost of uniforms and radios, both mandated by the state fire code. In the case of the local ordinance, the uniform will be a red hat with “Fire Watch” on it. To ensure that a fire watch has direct and immediate access to the fire department, they will be issued a radio, during the shift.

Finally, Lehman says that the money will be used to cover overtime pay for firefighters. If no retired or volunteer firefighter is willing to cover the shift, an on duty firefighter may be appointed to the fire watch. Since this will leave the fire department shorthanded, it may be necessary to call an off-duty firefighter to the station to cover the vacancy.

“Typically that won’t happen,” said Chief Mullett. “I don’t foresee us sending someone on duty [to a fire watch] and then having someone come in to stand by at the station. Typically, if they’re going to come in, they’ll do the fire watch.”

This is especially true given the fact that the $25-$35 per hour that the firefighter would earn on fire watch is considerably more than they would make working overtime at the station.

In light of the urgency with which this problem had to be addressed, Chief Mullett believes this to be a pretty good outcome. The unanimous vote by city council would suggest that they agree. Others, however, have a different point of view.

“I thought it needed some better thinking through,” said Larry Hughes, trustee at Emmanuel Free Will Baptist Church, the location of Emmanuel Christian School.

His primary objection is with the language of the state mandate that a fire watch must be a trained firefighter.

“I guess, if we’ve had a state law for ten years and it’s never been enforced, it’s pretty obvious that somebody doesn’t think it’s a very good law,” said Hughes. “In the military, we had to do [fire watch], but they didn’t make us take a course to know what a fire looks like, so that’s just the whole gist of it. I agree with everything about the law, I just don’t agree with how it has to be manned.”

With that said, he’s also not crazy about the local ordinance to address the issue.

“We can’t afford $400 a day for somebody to walk around and look for a fire. That’s just not in the budget. What we’ll have to do is just dismiss school if it happens during school time.”

Though he says he knows from being in management that there are always a lot of hidden costs, but still, he thinks the program is a little costly.

“I don’t know what it costs for an employer to cover your workman’s comp, your liability insurance, taxes, administrative costs and all of that, so to me, a one-to-one ratio seems a little high,” Hughes said of the $25/$25 firefighter pay to administrative costs ratio. “The other thing that kind of goes along with that is, I don’t know what a firefighter is paid here in town, but I doubt very seriously if our firefighters are making $25 an hour on active duty.”

Hughes is right in this respect. A first class firefighter in Wabash will earn a salary of $41,441 next year. They work 48 hours, two weeks in a row, and 72 hours on the third week. This comes to 2,912 hours each year, an average of 56 hours per week, which comes to $14.23 per hour of active duty.

Though the ordinance in Wabash is very similar to what officials in other cities have adopted, for Hughes and others in a similar position, it may be hard to see why the fire watch fee is so high. There is, however, some reasoning behind it. According to Lehman and Wenrich, it comes down to a three-fold incentive.

First of all, the price of the service will likely encourage building owners to maintain their fire safety systems in attempt to avoid a major, costly malfunction.

“It’s an incentive to make sure systems are in order,” said Wenrich.

Secondly, the payment offered to volunteer, retired, and off duty firefighters must be enough to convince them to give up their free time and cover a fire watch.

“You’ve got to make it attractive enough to make them show up,” Wenrich added.

In addition to choosing to use the city’s system or evacuate, the owner can choose to recruit and organize a fire watch apart from the city’s ordinance. Proponents of the ordinance hope that the program’s cost might incentivize local businesses to set up their own fire watch plan, reserving the city’s fire watch system as a secondary option. Some of the area’s larger employers have identified volunteer firefighters already on staff who would qualify to act as a fire watch with Chief Mullett’s approval. He or she would, however, only be able to perform fire watch duties during his or her shift.

The city and fire department is under no obligation to create an ordinance to address the issue or provide a fire watch as the law stands. Without the ordinance, however, business owners would have not option but to recruit a firefighter on their own or evacuate.

“Obviously, some of the businesses that fall under this, evacuating them is not real feasible,” said Mullett. “When you’re talking about nursing homes, hospitals, you know, we just decided we were going to have to get something in place to where we didn’t have to evacuate those places, so ultimately, it’s to keep me from having to make that order.”

“We want to provide local employers an option,” said Lehman.

Without this option, a business or organization facing logistical limitations to evacuation who cannot find a certified fire watch on their own would be subject to fines, and possibly worse.

“God forbid if you didn’t follow it and you had a fire,” said Wenrich. “Your business is in a whole heap of trouble. In my view, we’re offering businesses and schools help in solving a problem.

“The last thing the city wants to do is micromanage someone’s business,” Wenrich continued. “You don’t have to pay the city to do it. It’s a way to help people out who are in a jam, and it’s an incentive to make sure systems are in order.”

General Ordinance No. 8 is one solution to a difficult situation. Though some may find it too costly, it is simply a service provided by the city, the use of which is not mandated.

“Not many businesses have employees who would qualify under those conditions to be a fire watch officer,” said Chamber of Commerce President Kim Pinkerton. “Having the city offer our businesses this option is really a win for both entities and a bargain when we are dealing with certified professionals who will ensure compliance and offer what could be a faster response to an emergency.”

With the passing of the ordinance on Dec. 9, the fire watch program became available to the public. As time passes, the ordinance will be reviewed and revised where needed.

“I think it’s the best we could do with the circumstances we have,” said Mullett. “I think it’s a very good starting point and it may be a very good ending point. We’ll review it in six months to a year, see how it’s going, and see if we need to change anything.”

As county businesses do not fall under the city fire department’s jurisdiction, it will be up to county fire chiefs to address the issue in their respective districts. Mullett and Lehman said that they are more than willing to collaborate with the other local fire departments to help them construct a similar program.

Building owners in need of a fire watch or seeking clarification on the fire code and/or ordinance should contact Chief Robert Mullett at 260-563-1166.

Posted on 2013 Dec 23