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Staffing shortage raises specter of missed fire dangers in Colorado Springs

March 4, 2018 Updated: March 5, 2018 at 10:12 am
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Firefighters extinguished a kitchen fire Monday afternoon at an apartment complex near Galley Road and North Murray Boulevard. (Photo courtesy of the Colorado Springs Fire Department.)

Short on staff and time, the Colorado Springs Fire Department's inspectors can examine only a fraction of the city's businesses each year.

Even a portion of the businesses that pose a higher-than-normal safety risk don't always get inspected annually.

Unless that changes, it's only a matter of time until disaster strikes, said Kris Cooper, the deputy fire marshal in charge of the department's code services unit. And, the number of calls his staff receives is increasing annually, creating a bigger backlog.

"It's like delaying maintenance on your car," Cooper said. "If you don't do regular oil changes, your car is going to have fits and you're going to have to dump a lot more money into it."

Much of the staffing shortage began around 2009, when the Great Recession hit the country, Cooper said. Since then, the department's annual calls for service have increased by about 12,000 to nearly 70,000.

In short, the danger a lack of inspectors represents is a fire like the 2016 Oakland, Calif., warehouse inferno, which claimed the lives of 36 people. It might have been avoided with proactive inspections from the city's fire department, Cooper and Fire Marshal Brett Lacey agreed.

Cooper's unit is in charge of inspecting the city's approximately 25,000 businesses to ensure they're adhering to fire codes, he said. But, because the city doesn't require businesses to be licensed, they don't have a precise number of buildings that must be examined. And, because the unit only employs six fire inspectors and one marijuana business inspector, they can visit only a fraction of the existing businesses each year.

Cooper said he is conducting interviews for one vacant inspector position, but even with that extra employee the unit will continue prioritizing about 4,000 businesses for inspection each year.

"Places of assembly, bars, nightclubs, theaters. Throughout history, that's where we've seen the highest loss of life," he said. "We expect our inspectors to get out to each of those each year and it doesn't happen."

The unit is also expected to investigate fires around town, of which there are about five a week, Lacey said. And they handle complaints from city residents. These and other duties keep Cooper's inspectors from completing each of the 4,000 prioritized inspections.

"About 40 percent of our workload is from inspections that weren't planned," Cooper said.

To inspect each of the city's 25,000 businesses, Cooper said his unit would need to more than double in size, a dubious proposition. The position the unit is currently adding was made possible by general fund money freed by the recent passage of stormwater fees.

Mayor John Suthers said with that freed general fund money he wants to add about two additional inspectors in as many years.

Fire Chief Ted Collas said the adding inspectors is a high priority for the department. Over the past two years, the department has been able to hire two new inspectors.

Spreading the inspectors thin can lead to slippage and miscommunications, Lacey and Cooper acknowledged.

Most recently, the staffing shortage resulted in the popular downtown Brewer's Republic, remaining open while failing to fix an outdated fire prevention system, for which it had been flagged multiple times over two years.

After inspector Brian Rapplean flagged Brewer's ineffective system, he gave the business multiple extensions to fix it. He left the Colorado Springs Fire Department in April, and it took six more months before a different inspector picked up on the problem. Now the Colorado Springs Police Department is investigating Rapplean's past investigations to see whether anything criminal took place, Cooper said. Rapplean did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Brewer's closed late last year after its owners said they were unable to pay for the needed repairs. It has since reopened under new ownership.

As things are, Lacey said those situations are to be expected and other than hiring more people, there's little the unit can do to avoid similar occurrences.

"Things are going to fall off the plate from time to time," Cooper said. "How many new (inspections) can you do each week and still try to clean up the stuff you've already written?"

Examining a business is one aspect of an inspector's job, but the bigger picture is more complicated and can be costly for the city, said Jeremy Vigil, assistant chief with the Denver Fire Department.

"It's one thing to inspect a building. It's another thing to gain compliance," Vigil said. "Compliance is challenging for any agency."

Vigil's fire prevention division, which houses 64 people and conducts inspections for the city and county of Denver, Sheridan, Skyline and Glendale, does things differently.

Over the past three years, Vigil said his division has inspected an average of 93 percent of the area's approximately 30,000 buildings that must be checked annually.

But, Vigil acknowledges a different division handles fire inspections. In addition, they have more money to keep staffing levels up because they charge a fee for every inspection.

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