The Insurance Services Office (ISO) is one of the go-to companies in the world when it comes to risk management. Insurance companies all over the world hire ISO to give them an accurate estimate of what is and isn’t a good risk. This year, the ISO told insurance companies that when it comes to fire safety, Mt. Lebanon is the safest bet around.
Mt. Lebanon Fire Department received the ISO’s top rating in the Public Protection class, sharing that rating with only 60 other towns nationwide. One of the factors that contributed to achieving the rating is Mt. Lebanon’s very comprehensive safety inspection program.
Last year, Mt. Lebanon firefighters performed 1,043 safety inspections, in five categories.
Annual Inspections Schools, nursing homes, hospitals and day care centers require an annual inspection, as do places that receive permits for liquid propane gas (drug and hardware stores); assembly (restaurants, bars, malls and church social halls), and garage repair.
General Inspections Commercial buildings that don’t require an annual permit, like small restaurants, takeout places and bars.
Company Inspections Done every two years on apartments and multifamily dwellings with three or more units.
Permit inspections Done whenever a one-time permit is requested, either for a special event, such as ULTRAParty, or for construction that may pose a fire hazard, such as welding or hot work on a roof.
Special Inspections Done by request, in response to a complaint or as follow up after a fire or other emergency incident. Also, every time a new exhaust hood is installed in a commercial kitchen, the fire department has to be on hand to make sure it’s working properly.
In addition to those inspections, the fire department works with the inspection office reviewing plans for new construction.
The bulk of the fire safety inspections are done during daylight hours by career firefighters working the day shift. Volunteers Dave Berry, Terry Grunenberg, Liz Towns and Charlie Wehrum round out the daytime inspection crew. The fire and life safety division, along with the volunteers, concentrate on commercial inspections. Apartment buildings are inspected by the fire suppression shifts.
Before firefighters perform an inspection, they send the business owner or other responsible person a checklist that details the items they will be looking for, such as clearly visible address numbers, well-lighted hallways, stairwells and exits, working fire extinguishers and fire alarm systems, and safe electrical wiring.
As the inspectors work their way through a building, they note any deficiencies and present the owner with the results. If a building comes up short in any area, the owner is given some time to address the issues before the inspectors return. Of the 1,043 inspections done in 2013, 570 were re-inspections.
“Sometimes it takes three visits to bring a building up to code, but most places only need one re-inspection,” says Lt. Loren Hughes, of the department’s fire and life safety division.
Surprisingly, there is no statewide fire code in Pennsylvania. The state adopted the International Building Code, but did not adopt the International Fire Code, because most communities don’t have the resources to conduct routine fire inspections. Mt. Lebanon has adopted the International Fire Code.
“This helps us—if someone chooses not to correct something, then we have some legal options,” says Hughes.
“The main goal is to make buildings safe and compliant,” says Lt. Mike Stohner, a member of the fire and life safety division. “We’re not trying to punish anyone. We just want to correct the problem.”
With so many fire and life safety inspections to keep on top of, keeping records accurate and up to date was posing a challenge to the department. This year, the fire department acquired new cloud-based, third-party software that tracks the various inspections it conducts.
The software, called Compliance Engine, makes it easier to keep track of all inspections, deficiencies and re-inspections, streamlines the report submission process and connects commercial and residential properties with the department and with private alarm companies, sharing all of the information.
“Compliance Engine helps us because all of the buildings have different systems, and it’s hard to track,” says Hughes.
The new software helps streamline report submittal and notification of building owners. It acts as a clearinghouse to keep track of every inspection, and lists all of the violations and discrepancies, which makes re-inspections go much faster. Also, Compliance Engine is linked with the fire department’s Firehouse software system, which points out hazards at any building to which a fire vehicle is dispatched.
Hughes expects that Compliance Engine, which was just put into use earlier this year, will allow the firefighters to accomplish more, but adds that software advances aside, good communication and mutual respect between the fire department and the property owners/managers is the most important component in keeping the community safe.
“The inspection process is dependent on the cooperation of the building owners and the maintenance staff,” Hughes says. “Just about everyone we work with is committed to maintaining high levels of safety. We’re very fortunate to have so many people working toward the same goal.”