Loophole undermines law requiring fire inspections for Pittsburgh restaurants
By Tony LaRussa
Published: Sunday, June 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
A restaurant must catch fire before Pittsburgh officials in most cases discover it's violating a state law that requires commercial kitchens to have automatic fire suppression systems above cooking areas and inspect them twice a year.
State officials said that's because the law does not require municipalities to conduct inspections after they issue occupancy permits when businesses open or remodel.
Sara Goulet, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees building codes, said the systems must meet standards set by the International Fire Code and the Uniform Construction Code and must be tested twice a year.
“It is the owner's responsibility to have a reputable person perform the required maintenance and testing,” Goulet said. “The standards do not regulate who has to do this.”
Pittsburgh firefighters responding to a fire on June 19 at Tavern 245 on Fourth Avenue, Downtown, learned the restaurant owner did not have the fire suppression system inspected regularly. The system did not activate when grease ignited in a fryer and spread to the roof, causing $100,000 in damage. No one was injured.
City fire officials said they will fine the business $1,000 plus costs for failing to have the system inspected.
The business is owned by J&R Holdings in Brentwood, according to an occupancy permit on file with the city's Bureau of Building Inspection. Joseph Yayo, owner of J&R Holdings, did not return messages seeking comment.
The lack of municipal enforcement is like having a speed limit without police, said Dale Eller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Fire Equipment Distributors, the trade group for fire suppression system installers.
“Some people will get on the turnpike and follow the posted speed limit, but it's a good bet that many people will go a lot faster if they know there's never going to be a trooper out on the road enforcing the law,” he said.
Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones said the Fire Bureau is developing a comprehensive fire prevention plan that includes using firefighters to conduct regular follow-up inspections of commercial kitchens and issue citations if they fail to correct violations.
Part of an $800,000 federal Homeland Security grant the city received last year will pay to train and certify firefighters as fire inspectors, Jones said, adding that about 90 percent of the city's company officers are trained.
Workers will install mobile data terminals in fire trucks to make it easier to file and follow up inspection reports, he said.
Jones said the city's policy of having independent inspectors, hired by businesses, notify the city if a system passes or fails inspection does not appear to work.
“Frankly, I have not seen a whole lot of these reports from third-party inspectors come into the office,” he said. “I'm hoping to have something in place by the fall.”
Although city inspectors make sure that fire suppression systems in commercial kitchens operate properly before they issue an occupancy permit, no follow-up inspections occur unless the kitchen is remodeled or someone files a complaint, said John Jennings, who heads the city's Bureau of Building Inspection.
“For us, it comes down to numbers,” Jennings said. “We have three (fire inspector) positions in the bureau, and one of them is vacant.”
Deborah Fannie, owner of ABC Fire Protection in Ross, which installs suppression systems, said she's not aware of any municipalities that conduct follow-up inspections.
“It's really a sin that they aren't doing the inspections, because these systems are the first line of defense when there's a fire,” she said. “The law is only going to be followed if there's enforcement.”
Jones' plan to use firefighters for follow-up inspections has worked in several cities similar in size to Pittsburgh.
Firefighters in Cincinnati conduct yearly spot checks of commercial kitchens, said Capt. Steve Coldiron, who heads the fire prevention bureau.
“The inspections are unannounced, but they are not a ‘gotcha' thing,” Coldiron said. “It's certainly difficult for us to get out to all the kitchens every year, but we want them to be operating safely, and this is a way to identify problems before something happens.”
Firefighters in St. Paul reinspect commercial kitchens on a two- to three-year cycle, depending on the facility's potential risk and history, said Angie Wiese, fire protection engineer.
“The (business) is required to have the system inspected and maintained twice a year by a third party, but we still go in on a regular basis to check if they are complying,” Wiese said.
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7987 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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