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Maine fire chief battles with postmaster over evacuation & code enforcement

Fire chief not happy after being told about the limits of his authority

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In the late 1980s I did a series of TV news stories about the frustrations of the fire department and workers over serious code violations at the Arlington County, Virginia headquarters of what was then called the Defense Communications Agency. There were broken alarms, blocked exits and the usual stuff firefighters encounter in poorly maintained buildings. The frustration was over DCA pretty much ignoring the complaints. Essentially, the locals had little recourse if the federal government–and in this case, the Department of Defense–chose to ignore the problems. That’s why a group of employees, worried about their safety, reached out to me, sharing photos and documents. They knew the only hope they had for making DCA safe was publicity and possibly the Congressional delegation from Northern Virginia. Both eventually had some impact.

The Rockland, Maine fire chief seems to me experiencing similar frustrations and has gone to the local news media. Chief Christopher Whytock’s concerns developed in December when smoke filled a local post office. On his day off and in civilian clothes, Chief Whytock tried unsuccessfully to order clerks to evacuate the building of customer and workers. According to Stephen Betts at VillageSoup.com, the chief eventually convinced the postmaster to order the evacuation. The problem turned out to be a malfunctioning boiler that was being fixed, but this story doesn’t end there.

During the December 20 incident, Chief Whytock discovered there were no smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. The fire extinguishers had expired inspections. Just as Arlington County officials were told thirty-years-ago, Chief Whytock says a USPS supervisor out of Portland let the chief know he has zero authority for code enforcement in the federal building.

Stephen Betts, VillageSoup.com:

“I was told right up front that I had no authority to enforce codes in their building,” Whytock said.

He said he was informed that he could leave his “list of findings” with the person who is responsible for building maintenance, and she would talk to the postmaster in Rockland.

“I couldn’t meet either one of them to talk about the issues found, nor could I follow up with any sort of inspection,” the chief said.

“This baffles my mind for so many obvious reasons. Not only the fact that they follow no life safety codes, but that the building leases space to private citizens, who I believe they have a responsibility to protect. Add to this the public who go into that building every day to carry out their business,” the chief said.

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My experience is that while local code enforcement doesn’t have legal authority in a federal building, some agencies are better than others in dealing with safety concerns identified by the local fire department. My advice from experience with DCA and a few other federal agencies through the years is If you really can’t get cooperation over serious safety issues, notifying the local news media and your Congressional delegation may be your only recourse to protect those who work in and visit that building.

General Services Administration’s on Codes & Standards

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