Town may get its own Fire Marshal

For more than responding to alarm calls
Fri, 04/13/2018 - 8:15am
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The Block Island Volunteer Fire Department’s quest to find a better way to respond to fire alarm calls may result in a town employee taking over that responsibility, and much more.

At the last membership meeting in March, Fire Chief Peter Gempp and Fire Lieutenant Mike Ernst were authorized to approach the town with a proposal to reduce the volunteers’ burden by hiring a town employee as an “Alarm Officer” to answer alarm calls and enforce local ordinances. In a mainland town, those calls would be answered by employees of alarm service companies.

Gempp and Ernst reported at the April 9 monthly meeting that they had met with Town Manager Ed Roberge and found him supportive.

“The Town Manager was definitely on board,” Gempp said.

Roberge’s immediate solution, according to Gempp and Ernst, is for Wayne Pinkham, who currently serves as both Minimum Housing Inspector and Wastewater Inspector for the town, to obtain certification through the National Fire Protection Association as a “Certified Fire Inspector I” (or CFI-I). With that credential, Pinkham would be recognized by the state as an Assistant Deputy State Fire Marshal.

Pinkham, who was at the meeting, confirmed that he was asked and has agreed to take the classroom training and exam, which the town will pay for.

He added that it was “still to be determined how (the new duties) will be set up in personnel terms.” 

“The first thing,” Pinkham told the members, “is to get (me) certified.”

“The Town Manager is all about public safety,” Pinkham told The Block Island Times after the meeting. “When the Fire Department approached him, he was right on board” with the idea of the town taking on the fire marshal role.

On Wednesday, Roberge confirmed to The Times that the Fire Department’s proposal is being seriously considered, but stressed that no decisions have been made beyond getting Pinkham certified for the fire marshal’s duties.

“We’re working on a solution” regarding the post, Roberge said. He added that discussions to date have included himself, First Warden Ken Lacoste and Building Official Marc Tillson, as well as the Fire Department officers, and consultations with the RI Division of the State Fire Marshal.

Having a municipal fire marshal “is a valuable service, and we want to provide the best service to the community.”

As to how the duties would be assigned, Roberge said that combining minimum housing and fire inspection duties in a single position is “a potential alignment. That’s under review. It’s all really developmental right now... There are a million details we’re working on.”

Roberge made clear that a fire marshal’s role would be considered in the process of reviewing the town’s entire personnel system, including classification, descriptions and pay scales for all positions. 

He had referred to that review during town council work sessions on the town’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget. 

In particular, Roberge said his concern was for the “sustainability and succession planning” for the Building Department. “It’s a one-man show” with Tillson as the Building Official, Roberge noted.

Roberge also emphasized that the fire marshal discussions to date have not affected the proposed 2019 budget, which has already been approved by the Town Council. “We hope there isn’t a budgetary effect,” he added; the goal is to “hold the line” on budget increases.

The BIVFD has long been irritated that off-island alarm companies have contracted to serve Block Island homes and businesses without stationing their staff on-island to respond when an alarm is triggered. The current town budget includes a separate $6,000 line item — proposed by the Fire Department last year — to fund a reimbursement program for crews responding to alarm calls. 

The Fiscal Year 2019 budget maintains that funding, but the Department’s members are not satisfied with the program’s results, and brought the new proposal to the town.

In reality, however, responding to alarm calls — the Fire Department’s immediate concern — would not be the primary focus of the new position. According to the state Fire Marshal’s website, local fire department personnel with the nationally-recognized CFI-I credential are regulated as Assistant Deputy State Fire Marshals. 

That means the local CFI-I would perform all the duties of a fire marshal under state law, most importantly enforcing the State Fire Safety Code by inspecting all private businesses — hotels, bed and breakfast homes, retail stores, the gas station, the Empire Theatre, storage facilities and others — and the Block Island School.

Once the town has its own CFI-I, Pinkham told The Times, “the State Fire Marshal won’t have a reason to come out to Block Island except (to inspect) the State Airport.” 

According to its website, the Fire Marshal’s Inspection Unit has direct jurisdiction over facilities owned, operated or licensed by the state. That also includes the Early Learning Center and possibly the Medical Center.