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Connecticut multi-family homes need more fire inspections — and more fire marshals

Kevin Bidwell

Recent fires in Connecticut multi-family homes are exposing a systemic problem: there are not enough fire marshals to inspect the buildings yearly.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Dave Altimari to discuss his article written with Andrew Brown and Katy Golvala, “Overdue fire inspections: Waterbury fatal blazes highlight statewide problem,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Dave, could you just give us an idea of what we're talking about here? There were some fatalities in Waterbury and you think those can be linked to overdue inspections.

DA: There were two fatalities within two months in Waterbury, in what I call triple-deckers and five people died. We decided to look at when those houses had been inspected. Under the state law, which a lot of people don't realize, those types of houses are supposed to be inspected by the fire marshal annually. In the case in Waterbury, in the one which was a triple fatal, including the death of a one-year-old child, the house had not been inspected since 2008.

WSHU: Now, why was that?

DA: What we then learned is that that's not an unusual occurrence. That fire marshals, particularly in bigger cities, just say it's virtually impossible for them to meet this state law because they just don't have the personnel to inspect the number of houses and units that they need to inspect. If you think about our bigger cities, they have thousands of these multi-family homes in them. Waterbury, I believe, had close to 2,000 three-and-four family houses. And the fire marshal said, you know, I could double the size of my staff and I still wouldn't be able to get to every single one of them.

WSHU: And this is pretty old housing stock in Waterbury.

DA: In general, these triple-deckers, many of them were built as far back as the Civil War or the late 1890s. In this case, both of these houses were built in the 1890s. So they clearly aren't anywhere near a fire code. And also, a lot of them were built with a type of construction that if there is a fire, it makes it difficult to stop because it spreads quickly throughout the whole home.

WSHU: Now, is there any way we can retrofit these homes, for the owners to be able to retrofit them, to be able to have better fire suppression?

DA: The biggest items when they do inspect are smoke detectors. Fire-resistant doors are another big one. In other words, you have to have doors that would withstand heat and withstand a fire because in a fire, seconds literally count whether you can be saved or not. Also, emergency lighting is also an electricity issue, particularly in the basement. A lot of these older homes have what they call knob-and-tube wiring, which is not approved anymore. If that house was built today, it would not have that type of wiring. So those are the four basics. Some of them are pretty simple, like smoke detectors and lighting.

It's just a matter of getting to inspect many of the houses. And that's where the big problem is. We don't know how many there are total in Connecticut. There's probably at least 20,000 of multi-family homes, probably significantly more than that. The Meriden fire marshal that we interviewed said he gets to about half of them any given year. I suspect that's probably a decent statewide average, if we were going to play out that probably half of these houses are concerns for bad fires that are getting inspected.

WSHU: Now, what are the fire inspectors saying? I understand that they've approached the Legislature about changing the law?

DA: Yes, about five years ago, the chiefs from Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, which were at the time, the three biggest cities in the state, went to the Legislature and asked if there could be changes made to the law. Ironically, the Connecticut Fire Marshals Association, which is the whole state, every fire marshal did not agree to that. So there is a little bit of a split within fire marshals themselves.

The bigger cities say this is untenable for us. Smaller cities, the fire marshals are okay with it because they may have 25 houses right that they have to inspect and they can get to 25 houses in a year. So the Legislature talked about forming a task force to look at it and it never happened. And it's never come back up again. I think the fire marshals themselves would like to see more money put into hiring inspectors. Some towns are doing that, but not many.

WSHU: This is a local responsibility not a state responsibility, right?

DA: Correct. This is all on the local fire marshals. So in other words, New Haven is supposed to have 12 inspectors in the fire marshal's office, right now they only have seven, I believe they're down five people. There's no way they're going to be able to inspect 2,500 triple-deckers that are in New Haven. So part of it is, is there going to be a commitment to putting more money into it or changing the law so that it's maybe every other year that you have to inspect every single one to give them a more of a fighting chance to get into all these houses.

WSHU: Now, Bridgeport was sued over a situation like this. What was the outcome of that lawsuit? And is that going to play any role in what happens going forward?

DA: It already does. For many fire marshal's it was an eye opening case. It goes back years, there were four people killed in a fire in a Bridgeport housing project back in 2008. And a lawsuit was filed against the city, claiming that they were liable because they didn't properly inspect the building. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which eventually ruled that indeed, Bridgeport was liable. So that was an eye opening decision for many fire marshals, because now they knew that potentially they could be held liable if there was a fire in one of these places and they hadn't inspected it.

That still is a pretty big fear for many of them. And one of the reasons why they're concerned about the law is that they just feel it's untenable for the city fire marshals to meet that deadline.

WSHU: Okay, so going forward, what's the landscape like? This is an issue that's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it now.

DA: I expect that the fire marshals will try to go back to the Legislature again, during the next session. I think what the fire marshals will go back to the Legislature on is the state law itself and trying to get that law amended in some way.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.