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Watertown City Council ends firefighters’ inspections


In one of her last actions as city manager in April, Mary M. Corriveau informed the Fire Department that firefighters would no longer be able to conduct fire inspections on Watertown’s commercial buildings.

The City Council supported that decision last week by repealing the remaining sections of the city code pertaining to fire inspections because they have been “effectively replaced, superseded and/or pre-empted by the city code enforcement office and state building codes.”

But the unanimous vote Tuesday night was opposed vehemently by Timothy P. “Tucker” Wiley, president of Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, who contended the fire inspections kept firefighters “safe.”

“I don’t know what was broken,” Mr. Wiley said about the change.

Firefighters need the inspections to get acquainted with the layout of commercial building interiors, which would help them if they ever have to get inside to fight a fire, he said.

He said he “begged” council members not to make the change. Firefighters conducted thousands of inspections in 2009 and 2010, and 80 percent of property owners complied with their findings. Mr. Wiley last May said he would blame city officials if any of his members are injured in a fire in which an inspection was not done.

Instead of 74 firefighters conducting that work, the city code enforcement office’s four-person staff is now responsible for inspecting commercial buildings.

Fire Chief Dale C. Herman told council members he is “not certain of all the ramifications” of the change. To his surprise, Chief Herman said, he was told by Mrs. Corriveau — just about the time she was leaving work on her last day on the job — the fire inspections must end immediately.

About 15 firefighters attended Tuesday night’s meeting while Mr. Wiley and Chief Herman made their arguments. After the vote, the firefighters quietly got up from their seats and filed out of council chambers.

The firefighters union filed a handful of grievances against the city, demanding the issue be resolved, City Manager Sharon A. Addison said Wednesday. That’s why the issue came up at the City Council meeting.

Before the vote, Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. asked Robert J. Slye, the city attorney, whether the fire inspections were “essentially outdated” because of changes made in a 2005 state law. Mr. Slye agreed the inspections were no longer necessary, calling them “superfluous.”

In addition to the change in the state law, the council passed a resolution in 2005 that ended the Fire Department’s role in conducting building inspections, giving the code enforcement office sole authority to complete them. But Chief Herman and Mr. Wiley said in May they were notified at the time their role had changed with the 2005 law.

“It’s ridiculous,” Mr. Wiley said Wednesday. “Nobody wanted to talk to us. They didn’t want to ask us questions. They did not ask us why it was a big deal to us.”

In direct contradiction to the law, the Fire Department continued to hand out a stack of violation notices last year whenever firefighters came across building violations. All of them were filled out incorrectly, city officials said last spring.

The issue had been brewing for a while and came to a head following a personnel change in early 2012, when two firefighters were assigned to the code enforcement office to help code enforcement inspectors with building inspections, city officials said. That’s when Code Enforcement Supervisor Shawn R. McWayne went to Mrs. Corriveau to see about stopping the practice of firefighters conducting the inspections.

Ms. Addison said she hopes the communication between the Fire Department and the code enforcement office can improve now that the council eliminated the remaining language from the city code about fire inspections because it eliminates “some ambiguity.”

In other action Tuesday night, the council:

n Agreed to sell the former Fort Drum Vehicle Storage warehouse at 753 Rear W. Main St. to Knowlton Technologies for $80,000, the amount the company had put in a bid for during a Jan. 8 public auction. The city took over the building in July from vehicle storage company owners JoAnn Sanchez-Norquist and John S. Norquist after they failed to pay back taxes.

The company’s chief financial officer, Ruby “Charlene” Williams, had tried to purchase the building for $125,000, but she failed to attend the closing in December and forfeited her $12,500 deposit.

n Agreed they could not help local businessman Stephen J. Bradley, who asked for a tax abatement package for the previously vacant upper floors of his building at 150 Court St. he turned into loft and studio apartments.

Council members concluded they did not have a mechanism to implement a tax package because he had completed the project and approval would be after the fact.

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