Fire code inspections for apartments proposed

Fire code inspections for apartments proposed

CHAMPAIGN – Champaign is currently the only community in the Big Ten that doesn't have some sort of systematic fire code inspection program for apartment buildings.

That could change under a proposal that will be considered by the Champaign City Council, which meets in study session at 7 p.m. tonight at the Champaign City Building, 102 N. Neil St.

Under a proposal being put forward by the city administration and the city-created Apartment Safety Task Force, the council is being asked to endorse having the city fire department inspect commons areas of apartment buildings – but not individual apartments – once every three years, with the city requiring landlords to complete self-inspection programs annually in the years between city inspections.

Under the proposal, apartment building owners would pay a fee ranging from $50 to $100 per building, and between $2.50 and $5 per apartment, to help finance the program, which would require hiring a fire prevention inspector and a clerk. Those fee ranges are preliminary estimates.

Champaign City Manager Steve Carter said the inspection of commons areas would include significant items such as sprinkler systems and alarm systems.

"This has always been a concern of the fire department in particular," Carter said. "Apartments are where we have our greatest potential exposure to loss of life."

In the two years between city inspections, apartment owners would be required to submit a completed self-inspection form along with annual test documentation of built-in alarm and fire suppression systems.

Frequent citizen complaints prompted the Champaign Fire Department to conduct random safety inspections of 23 different apartment buildings in November 2000. Twenty of the 23 buildings inspected had significant fire and life-safety code violations.

In the campus area, 11 of 12 apartments inspected were found to have inoperable alarm systems. Inspectors also found other problems, including large accumulations of trash in hallways, vandalism to exit signs, emergency lights and fire alarm pull stations, extension cords used to share power between apartments, fire alarms covered with wallboard and no solid-core or fire-rated doors on apartments. The owners of the 20 apartments with violations were advised of the code violations and instructed to make repairs.

City officials said Champaign is the only Big Ten city that does not inspect apartment buildings, though in central Illinois, Decatur and Springfield also have no inspection programs.

Urbana inspects both commons areas of apartments and individual apartments for fire code compliance.

"This is a high-visibility issue for the University of Illinois, which is concerned about the safety of students," Carter said.

Under Champaign's current policy, individual apartment units are inspected when a tenant complains to the city. That policy would continue.

The recommendations for the inspection program come from the task force, which was created at the behest of Fire Chief John Corbly and began its work in July 2003.

If the city council approves moving forward with the program, the task force and city staff would complete preparations for implementation of the systematic inspection program.

Both Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart and council member Ken Pirok said they believe the proposal will gain council support.

"Every Big Ten community has (inspections)," Pirok said. "I'm a landlord myself. Good landlords should want this."

Pirok said he believes not only fees, but fines and penalties for violators, should be used to pay for the program.

You can reach Mike Monson at (217) 351-5370 or via e-mail at mmonson@news-gazette.com.

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