Apartment in deadly fire hadn't been inspected in 16 yearsby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Minneapolis fire officials say apartments in the upper floor of the building that burned last week, hadn't been inspected in 16 years.
City officials say the fire department has been trying to shorten the time between inspections of residential buildings, but they admit they may have to do more to improve the process.
Fire inspectors visited McMahon's Irish Pub on the main floor of the mixed-use building just a few weeks before the fire. They found several fire code violations and gave the business owner two weeks to correct them.
But they didn't look at the second floor, where investigators believe the fire started that killed six people.
Fire Chief Alex Jackson said that's because inspectors had performed a complaint-based inspection of the main floor business. The procedure didn't include a look upstairs.
The second floor hadn't been inspected in a long time. When the city changed its inspection system five years ago, many residential buildings hadn't been inspected in 10 years, Jackson said.
City officials say the inspectors in the regulatory services department were overwhelmed and had a backlog of work. Chief Jackson said bringing the fire department in to do some building inspections was designed to lighten the load and shorten the time between inspections.
"And we put it on a five-year timeline -- those nearly 3,000 buildings," Jackson said. "So we compressed the 15 years into five. That was the goal."
He says the upper floor of the building on Lake Street was due for an inspection this summer.
There were indications that something may have been wrong upstairs. Inspectors had received complaints from a tenant about exposed wiring and other potential fire hazards a few years ago.
Jackson said inspectors couldn't investigate the complaints because three times the tenant didn't follow up.
"We cannot get in there without either one of two things. It requires permission or it requires a warrant," Jackson said. "And that's to protect people's rights."
In cases of serious fire code violations, inspectors can get a warrant to access a property, Jackson said, they need probable cause to force an inspection. The fact that the renter didn't keep three appointments may have shed doubt on the veracity of the claims in the eyes of a judge.
Jackson said the fire department takes fire code violations very seriously, and the city's fire chief has asked inspectors to make sure all buildings with both commercial and residential units get pushed to the top of the list.
Mayor R.T. Rybak said the fire exposed some problems the city has been working to correct for a few years now.
"For many, many years in this city there were far too many buildings that weren't inspected as rapidly as they could," Rybak said.
Rybak says the result of the investigation may show that the city needs to do more to speed up the inspections process. Police officials say the arson squad's investigation on last week's fatal fire is ongoing.
- All Things Considered, 04/07/2010, 5:50 p.m.