Michigan Fire Officials Say They Lack Resources for Safety Inspections

May 31, 2018

The Michigan fire marshal’s office hasn’t performed annual safety inspections of churches, theaters, restaurants or other places of public assemblage as required by state law, according to a newspaper investigation.

The Legislature has never funded the requirement, the Lansing State Journal reported. Lawmakers have rejected fee increases to bring more revenue for the state fire marshal, said State Budget Office spokesman Kurt Weiss.

State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer said his office would need to triple in size in order to conduct the inspections.

There are about 220,000 buildings that meet the legal definition of public assembly, Sehlmeyer’s office estimates.

The state fire marshal’s office has told auditors for decades that local fire departments perform the inspections.

But most fire departments statewide are all-volunteer with no inspectors on staff, according to former state fire marshal Julie Secontin’s surveys two years ago.

Michigan also doesn’t track fires across the state or whether the burned buildings had been inspected. The lack of tracking makes it difficult to gauge the severity of the issue.

Lansing Fire Marshal Marshaun Blake said his office only inspects public assemblage places if there’s a complaint, request or significant change to the building. The department doesn’t have the resources to inspect every location annually, so it prioritizes inspections based on the highest risk of fire.

“It is unfortunately a matter of the number of things there are to inspect vs. the number of inspectors available to inspect them,” Blake said.

This approach is likely common in many places around Michigan, said Michael O’Brian, a Brighton fire chief who heads the statewide chiefs association.

Secontin said Michigan has ignored the inspection problem for four decades. She worries that Michigan won’t dedicate the resources needed until after a tragedy.

Sehlmeyer has been talking to local fire officials and plans to meet with lawmakers to formally delegate inspection responsibilities to local fire departments. The state fire marshal’s office would then track and certify the inspections.

Sehlmeyer said he’s confident he can fix the problem.

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