Fire chief looks to increase business inspections

Published 6:59 pm Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Fire Chief Michael Barakey told City Council he would like to increase the number of fire and life safety inspections at the city’s businesses and add fees for fire and life safety inspections and permits — but don’t expect any immediate action to increase funding or staff to do so.

Barakey noted that the number of inspections at commercial businesses have steadily increased, and are projected to increase over the next three years. From July 2017 to June 2018, there were 132 inspections, and from July 2018 to now, there have been 533 inspections.

The jump in the number of inspections, Barakey said, came after the department added two part-time fire inspectors.


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Barakey said the department projects it will make 925 inspections in fiscal year 2020, 1,200 in fiscal year 2021 and 1,500 in fiscal year 2022.

“We look at not only optimizing our staff to the fullest, but certainly getting the most that we can out of the staff that we have,” Barakey said.

Even with that, he notes that more than half of city businesses are not getting inspected.

“You see our volume increases with the staff that we have, but we are still … missing pretty much 2,500 businesses that we cannot get into,” Barakey said.

Businesses and facilities getting inspected include schools, nursing homes, group homes and any type of daycare facilities, and inspections are taking place in medical facilities, Barakey said.

Barakey said two ways of increasing the number of inspections would be to implement an inspection fee — either a flat rate or based on square footage — and put in place an operational permit fee based on the quantity of the product. Barakey suggested that the city could charge up to $150 for an operational permit, which would allow the department to know what’s there in the event of an incident. The inspection fees are currently paid for through the general fund of the city’s budget.

Section 107 of the 2012 Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code says that “the fire official may require permits for a variety of processes, operations or the storage of materials.”

Barakey suggested a cap “of not more than $150” that a property owner would have to pay if it required more than one permit.

Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth all charge a flat rate inspection fee ranging from $50 to $55. In Hampton, Newport News and Norfolk, they charge by the square footage of a business, ranging from $50 to $375.

Suffolk, he said, is the only fire and rescue department in Hampton Roads that does not charge a fire and life safety inspection fee.

City Manager Patrick Roberts said there have been discussions about how the department can visit buildings more frequently.

“We are not proposing any changes in fees or in how we schedule inspections, or anything that’s going to be a direct impact to any business,” Roberts said, “not anything that’s going to create any additional cost in the current year. But it’s something that we’re looking at in future proposals, perhaps as early as the next fiscal year.”