ESD ramping up inspections

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

People in Liberty Hill may be asking, “Where’s the fire?” as they see Fire Marshal Keeling Neves out and about more in local businesses recently, but his presence is all about preventing those fires.

The sense in the community is that Emergency Services District #4 (ESD) is doing more today than it has in the past in terms of inspections, and Chief Anthony Lincoln said that’s a factor of resources available to the ESD today.

“We only had part-time people from our staff doing fire marshal duties previous to this,” Lincoln said. “Once you have the opportunity to have somebody do it full time, then you have a compliance officer who is out there proactively looking at projects and reviewing plans. We were always in a reactive mode a lot of the time and now we’re getting to the point where we are proactive with these projects going on, meeting with them, getting them going the right direction.”

Neves is busy with both plan approval and inspections for new structures, as well as inspections throughout the ESD of existing businesses. Last month, the ESD had 35 plans and 27 inspections in the area.

“It’s all about preventing the fire first, but then making sure once my guys get there they have the tools and the building is set up for them to be successful (fighting a fire),” Neves said.

“We are pretty soon going to start an inspection program for businesses,” he said. “I’ve already kind of started that last year.”

In addition to annual inspections of school campuses, Neves said he has first moved into apartment complexes, but will soon expand efforts into other types of facilities.

“I would like to move next into restaurants and churches because that’s where you will have a lot of people potentially together so there’s a chance for greater loss of life there or injuries,” he said. “That is going to be checking kitchen hoods to make sure they have been inspected within six months, making exit lights work, paths to the exits are clear, making sure the exit doors actually open. Again, it’s more of a health check of all the safety systems in the building.”

The increase in inspections is not about hassling business owners or making them less profitable, said Lincoln, but about safety.

“We don’t want to be the gotcha people,” Chief Lincoln said. “We want to make your place safer, whatever it takes to get to that point. We know a lot of this stuff costs money and you want to keep making money, and we all want you to keep the doors open because that’s an economic boost for everyone. We’re supported by the same tax base. It doesn’t do us any good to shut you down because we lose money.”

While firefighters are often very popular and respected in the community for the courageous service they provide, inspectors don’t always get the same reaction.

“We want to be proactive,” Lincoln said. “People typically want to see the fire guys on the operations side, but on the policing side maybe not so much. Historically it has always been that way, the good guy and the bad guy sides of the fire department.”

The hope is that if the work is done to plan and prepare businesses to avoid or limit fires, then everyone is safer.

“I’m all for working with people and trying to get them to a point where they will meet the intent of the fire code,” Neves said. “The way that I view my job is that I’m here to protect the citizens, I’m here to protect the building owner and their investment, and I’m also here to protect and make sure my guys are successful before that building ever catches on fire.”

When changes need to be made, be it lighting, fire extinguishers, repairs to existing suppression systems or other upgrades, Neves said he wants to work with business owners to find the best solution and provide reasonable time for those to be completed.

“Typically, we will give them a month to get stuff fixed,” he said. “But if I show up in a month and it is still not fixed but they are working toward that goal then I will show back up in another two weeks or so. It is more education and explaining to be people why it is so important.”

And he hopes those business owners understand he is not the enemy but a partner.

“We’re all in this together,” Neves said. “It is not the fire department versus small business owners or big business owners. If we can prevent the fire from happening first, and if the fire does happen all the systems are there and working, it ought to minimize the loss and the down time of that business.

“I have to caution though, because I’ve had a couple of inspections already where I found things that were not 100 percent correct and I had to write it down on the inspection reports. The managers weren’t happy with me, but I feel it is my duty that if I see a fire code violation then I have to write it down. I’m always willing to work with people, though, to get them into compliance with the fire code because that’s what it’s all about.”

As inspections increase and businesses begin to get these visits, the ESD wants to help spread the word about why it is happening and what it means.

“We are currently working on a way to do a mass mail-out to do a flyer or something that kind of lets the business owners know that we’re going to be coming to their businesses,” Neves said. “It’s not for monetary purposes, it’s basically to ensure they can keep their doors open.”

In addition to inspections of safety and fire prevention systems, new inspections are triggered when there is a change of use in a facility, as well as license inspections for businesses like child care facilities or nursing homes.

“Because those are licensed through the State of Texas, the State of Texas says you have to have a fire inspection done, so they will contact us and we will go out and do that,” Neves said. “Typically those businesses have been inspected before, so as long as fire alarm systems are good, fire extinguishers are good, they have a fire sprinkler system that has been inspected, emergency exit lighting is good and exit doors work they are good. It is basically a health check of the building and the safety systems.”

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