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Union, city fight over fire department’s role in building inspections

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The president of the firefighters union blasted city officials for no longer allowing firefighters to conduct building inspections, saying he will blame them if any of his members are injured in a fire where an inspection was not done.

Timothy P. “Tucker” Wiley, president of Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, sent a letter May 1 to the city that expressed his dismay that firefighters no longer can go out on code enforcement inspections of commercial buildings.

He said firefighters have been taken out of the inspection process, and that change could injure his union members. He brought up the issue in a letter to interim City Manager John C. Krol, code enforcement supervisor Shawn R. McWayne, City Engineer Kurt W. Hauk, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham and City Council members.

“If one of our members get hurt in a building that we should have inspected, but did not, we are holding those whose decision it was to make this change personally responsible,” he wrote.

To his surprise, Fire Chief Dale C. Herman said Wednesday, he was told by then-City Manager Mary M. Corriveau — on her last day on the job — that firefighters had no authority to conduct building code inspections and they must stop immediately.

But firefighters need to get into commercial buildings to see their layout, which would help them if they ever have to get inside to fight a fire, Chief Herman said. It angered his staff, so he was not surprised that Mr. Wiley sent such a strongly worded letter.

On Wednesday, the union president wasn’t backing down from the letter, saying he was trying to get the attention of council members.

“As my job as union president, I have to protect our members,” he said.

City Attorney Robert J. Slye said a 2005 state law and council resolution ended the fire department’s role in conducting building inspections, contending that the code enforcement office was given sole authority to complete the inspections. But both Chief Herman and Mr. Wiley said Wednesday they were not notified until recently that their role had changed with the 2005 law.

Asked if that was caused by a communications problems, the fire chief said, “Yes, seven years’ worth.”

In direct contradiction to the law, Mr. Slye also confirmed that the fire department handed out a stack full of violation notices during the past year whenever firefighters came across building violations. All of them were “not valid,” he said.

The issue has been brewing for a while and came to a head following a personnel change a few months ago when two different firefighters were assigned to his department to help code enforcement inspectors with building inspections, Mr. McWayne said. That’s when he went to Mrs. Corriveau to see about stopping the practice of firefighters conducting the inspections.

Since 1993, two firefighters have worked under the auspices of the code enforcement office as a negotiated agreement with the union to save those two jobs, Mr. Slye said. He emphasized it is confusing to property owners to have parallel inspections being done, particularly when a firetruck shows up in front of a building and uniformed firefighters want to look at its interior and then two other firefighters come later with code enforcement officers to inspect a structure.

Yet Mr. Slye said he understands why the fire department wants to know what a building looks like inside.

“No one has ever said they should not go through the buildings,” he said, saying the fire department has no legal right to write up code violations.

On Monday night, Mr. Graham asked about the letter at the Watertown City Council meeting during a discussion on the firefighters’ new contract approved that night. He said Wednesday he wanted to know whether things had been worked out.

A meeting among the fire department, the union and City Hall staff has been scheduled for Monday to see if they can resolve the issue.

“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Mr. Graham said, “that it couldn’t be resolved.”

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