The Payson Town Council last week on a split vote overrode the qualms of several veteran firefighters and the town’s own fire marshal and approved changes in the process by which the town can waive or relax fire code requirements.
The new administrative procedure would allow the town to negotiate waivers in certain fire code requirements — for instance swapping a narrower fire access road than the code requires for sprinklers in the building, which the code does not. The rules would apply only to “infill” properties smaller than four acres and come into play only when the builder would have a hard time meeting certain elements of the code.
However, several firefighters criticized the proposed policy change.
Battalion Chief Jimmy Rasmussen said the new policy was “a bad decision and very poorly written and thought out, without consulting the employees who must enforce the code. Safety codes will be reduced. I am disturbed that the town places financially viable projects ahead of the need to comply with fire codes. How can this council look at financial aspects above safety?”
Firefighter Vince Palandri, representing the Northern Gila County Firefighter’s Association, said “considering the risk to the residents who live there, I do not think we can arbitrarily change the code. I want economic growth and revenue, but I am no more willing to compromise fire codes than I am to let people drive 55 miles an hour in a residential area. Ignorance is no excuse. These are not new rules (in the national fire code). They were developed because at one time someone was injured or killed.”
Fire Marshal Bob Lockhart expressed concern that any exception to the fire code would become a new minimum, rather than a limited exception.
Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi said “our concern with this policy is its vagueness,” citing as an example a discussion about whether all access roads have to be wide enough to deploy the department’s ladder truck. “Does it apply to all (trucks)? You might want to revisit this and come up with a more agreeable revision.”
However, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans staunchly defended the revisions, saying the policy will replace the informal waivers of the past with a more formal process. He insisted the fire department will still make the decision on any negotiated waivers on any element of the fire code. He sharply disputed the suggestion the new policy put builders’ concerns above public safety.
“I do take offense you would think I would be casual in my role,” he said in response to Rasmussen’s suggestion that the policy put the financial needs of the builders over public safety.
“I didn’t mean to imply that,” said Rasmussen.
“It wasn’t implied, it was said,” replied Evans.
Evans also took exception to Palandri’s assertion that every single rule in the standard fire code was adopted after someone was hurt or injured.
“Lots of the codes were written for reasons other than someone was hurt or injured,” he said.
The revision of the administrative policy for granting exceptions to the fire code developed from discussions about reviving an apartment complex. The owner said he didn’t have room for the required 26-foot-wide road, the standard in the model code mostly to allow ladder trucks to position themselves.
However, the proposed alignment of the buildings didn’t leave a full 26-foot-wide access. So the developer proposed installing sprinklers in the building and a $50,000 fire hydrant to compensate for a narrower road. The discussion on Thursday also noted that even with a 26-foot road, the town’s aging ladder truck couldn’t get into position unless it arrived first — which deMasi conceded it usually wouldn’t.
Evans said the town has worked with property owners in the past. One well-publicized example was the Red Elephant Bakery’s ultimately successful effort to convince the fire department and the town council not to require the installation of an expensive commercial stove with a hood and fire-suppression system so they could add soup to the menu.
In another example, town and fire department officials negotiated with an ammunition manufacturing business on how to apply the town’s fire codes, which the town council adopted in 2006 based on a national fire code.
“No one can amend that code without coming back to the council,” said Evans.
“The administrative policy means you can go in and say, ‘26 feet may be the code number, but there may be some mitigation that can be negotiated by the staff.’ So you go out and try to work out some sort of compromise.”
“The people that make those adjustments should be the fire chief,” protested Rasmussen.
But deMasi hastily added that the fire chief can’t waive the code — only the council can do that.
Councilor Fred Carpenter asked who would have the authority to negotiate a change in the standard in return for other concessions.
Town Manager Debra Galbraith said “it would happen during plan review by the fire department.”
Councilor Michael Hughes said he would rather have the town apply the fire code with flexibility, instead of blindly following a generic national standard.
Councilor Ed Blair then moved to table the motion, hoping the staff could modify the proposed administrative policy to gain the support of all the firefighters.
“We need more information to decide whether this would be a reasonable policy. At the minimum, I’d like it written in the policy that it’s the fire department that makes the decision.”
However, the motion to table the discussion failed on a 4-3 vote, with Councilor Richard Croy, Blair and Carpenter in favor of the delay.
Councilor John Wilson then supported the policy, saying the town needed more flexibility in applying the potentially “hidebound” code.
Blair then asked Jon Barber, the head of the town’s Building Advisory Board, whether that citizen’s advisory group had reviewed the proposed administrative policy.
Barber said the board had not been consulted, but added that he saw no problem with the policy.
“The fire department is still going to have the final say, this just gives them a little more flexibility.”
“That doesn’t make me very comfortable,” said Blair. “If some administrative policy allows a project that doesn’t have enough room for the ladder truck and someone loses their life, doesn’t that make the town libel?”
Town Attorney Tim Wright replied, “the short answer is ‘no.’ But will we get sued? Probably, because we have the deep pockets. But if the town staff starts doing something other than what the council has directed, that’s another matter.”
“We already have buildings in this town that don’t meet the code,” Evans interjected.
Wright said each revision of the fire code adds restrictions, but the town has no legal obligation to update that code and that people who want to sue can’t use the lack of an update as a basis for their action.
Carpenter added, “I’d feel good about this code if it’s spelled out specifically that the fire department is the one to negotiate the exception.”
But Wilson said such a specific reference isn’t needed. “It can’t get by without their approval.”
However, Fire Marshal Lockhart suggested the new flexibility could reduce standards. “It sets a new standard. It would be hard to impose more than the minimum standard. This sets a new minimum standard. I am the gatekeeper and I try to keep inside the four corners of the code. Fire marshals generally don’t do a lot of negotiation.”
When the vote finally came, Councilor Richard Croy, Councilor Su Connell, Evans, Hughes and Wilson voted yes. Councilor Carpenter voted no. Councilor Blair said “never!”