Silvernail says he believes ‘fire inspections need to be done by fire officials’

By MIKE ANTHONY

Mehlville Fire Protection District Chief Jim Silvernail be-lieves “fire inspections need to be done by fire officials.”

Silvernail’s remarks were made Friday morning at a meeting of the district’s Board of Directors after a representative of the Home Builders Association of Greater St. Louis and Eastern Missouri proposed the district eliminate its current practice of inspecting new one- and two-family dwellings during construction.

Because St. Louis County also conducts such inspections, the ones performed by the Mehlville Fire Protection District are a duplication of services, said Anne Mehochko, senior assistant staff vice president of governmental affairs for the Home Builders Association.

But Mehlville Fire Marshal Ed Berkel said the district’s residential inspection program has been very effective, noting the first ordinance adopted by the Board of Direc-tors in 1954 adopted building codes and provided for local inspections.

The three-member Board of Directors — Chairman Aaron Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. — took no action last week on the proposal from the Home Builders Association, but plan to vote on the matter perhaps in February.

Addressing the board, Mehochko said, “What I’m here to talk to you about today is the duplication of services that are currently being performed by the Mehlville Fire Protection District and St. Louis County on one- and two-family inspections permitting, plan review, site-improvement plan review right now. And, again, that’s just one- and two-family dwellings that we’re talking about today.”

The Home Builders Association wants to streamline government, she said.

“… The Home Builders’ position is that we would like fire districts to eliminate their regulatory system for one- and two-family dwellings because the county, this is in areas where the county or the municipalities have building inspection programs, review programs and permitting systems in place,” she said. “So what we’re looking at is streamlining government. Basically this duplication of services adds as much as a thousand to two thousand dollars to the price of a home, and as an association we try to prevent the unnecessary regulations that would just increase the cost of housing and price people out of the market.

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for every one thousand dollars that’s added to the cost of a home, 300,000 families are priced out of the market. So while public safety and well-being is certainly the key to, of course, a fire protection district, county and municipality that have these regulatory systems in place, we don’t feel that there needs to be a duplication of efforts in this area,” Mehochko said.

She later noted that several districts in St. Charles County voluntarily eliminated their inspection programs because of the duplication, adding, “… There are several in St. Louis County who are in the process of doing the same.”

Regarding residential inspections, Hil-mer asked at one point, “So there are other entities in the county and surrounding counties that don’t engage in these practices?”

Mehochko said, “Oh yeah. Yeah …”

Hilmer said, “These are unique to fire districts?”

She replied, “Right.”

Two representatives of St. Louis County — Michael Werner, deputy public works director for code enforcement, and David Kasl, manager of permits/plan review — discussed the county’s inspection program, including the training and education re-quired for county inspectors.

During his presentation, Berkel said, “As I thought about this and went back to do a little history, (I) found it rather interesting that the first ordinance that Mehlville Fire District adopted in 1954 had to do with adopting building codes and to provide for localized inspections. That 50-year history has helped us to stay well below the na-tional average for fire loss in residential structures.

“Our fire investigations show us that the fires that do occur are largely accidental in nature, but even more importantly they are not related to building construction problems. The problems we noted some 20 years ago dealing with deficient or non-existent fire stopping has been drastically reduced,” he said. “When we do have fires that occur in newer homes, the compartmentation and the fire stopping we see today does a very good job of containing that and I believe it says quite a bit about the effectiveness of our code enforcement program.

“In addition, the folks in my division also have fire investigation experience and in a couple of cases, some of us actually have fire suppression experience. So we have seen both post-incident and during the incident the value of these types of things and I feel that because of that our folks have a much better understanding of these critical issues as well as the ways that you have to go about doing that,” the fire marshal added.

At one point, Ottoline asked Home Builder Association representatives who were present, “… Did your association not contribute $20,000 to the election of two of the members of this board?”

Mehochko said, “The Home Builders Association did not.”

Ottoline interjected, “Under the guise of …”

Mehochko replied that a political action committee, Friends of the Fire District, was formed by some members of the Home Builders Association.

The Friends of the Fire District contributed $20,000 to the South County Cit-izens for Reform, a committee that supported Hilmer and Stegman in their election bids last April. Hilmer and Stegman ousted two incumbents — Chairman Tom O’Driscoll and Secretary David Gralike.

After the presentations, Silvernail made his comments, saying, “No. 1, I’m not here to judge any agency’s skills or responsibilities. I’ve always had an excellent relationship with the Home Builders Association and I want to continue the same. First of all, I’d like to say I do support consistency of fees, inspection practices, enforcements of codes and at the present time the Fen-ton, Eureka, Valley Park and Pacific fire protection districts are setting this pace for these consistencies. I feel this is the lead that the Mehlville Fire District should be taking.

“However, I feel fire inspections need to be done by fire officials, not only for the protection of our homeowners, but for the protection of our firefighters that enter these structures under adverse conditions. Fire prevention is just as important for the saving of lives as fire suppression, and I want this very clear from my feelings, this is not about money, power, but about saving lives,” Silvernail said.

Four people also spoke in favor of retaining the fire district’s residential inspections, citing the safety of both homeowners and district employees. Among those speaking were Don Rataj, an architect, and Maureen Maag, wife of MFPD Capt. Den-nis Maag.