Criminal Charges Extinguish Serious Fire Code Violations

Criminal Charges Extinguish Serious Fire Code Violations

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Until recently the Seattle Fire Department’s efforts at obtaining compliance in certain commercial occupancies has met with less than complete success.

The issuing of a citation, while an excellent means of handling “no smoking” types of violations, has not proven successful in forcing compliance with more serious regulations in some older commercial buildings—especially hotels. If the owner did not wish to comply, it was possible for him to forfeit bail without appearing in court, with the hazards continuing uncorrected.

Now the department has taken a new approach—the filing of a criminal complaint against the owner. This forces the owner to appear in court. Failure to do so results in the issuance of a bench warrant.

A good example of how this is working occurred in December and involved the owner of the Milwaukee Hotel. This building suffered extensive damage during a 2-11 fire on August 9 and despite repeated efforts, little or no progress had been made to correct the violations. The department determined that it could no longer tolerate, nor assume the liability, of letting this situation exist any longer.

Criminal Complaint File

The criminal complaint charted the owner with two counts: (1) “That he did willfully and unlawfully … fail to comply with a lawful order to remove dangerous amounts of combustible materials,” and (2) “That he willfully and unlawfully … failed to provide two fully enclosed stairways which have one-hour fire-resistance rating throughout.”

At the time of the court case, the owner did not contest the charges, claiming he was 80 percent complete and that he felt the remainder could be completed within 30 days. The court fined the owner and deferred his sentence for the 30-day period. In addition, he was placed on probation for six months.

At the time of the decision, Lieutenant Gerry Childs of the fire marshal’s office, informed the court that the department was about to file an additional complaint against the owner concerning another occupancy in the International District. The judge then added the conditions that the owner make all corrections on the second occupancy, and failure to do so would violate his probation.

Thus far, the department has not lost a criminal complaint charge in court, and two to three a month are being issued. This procedure may not endear the department with certain hotel owners, but it is making the buildings safe for the occupants—and that’s the name of the game.

Reprinted from the Seattle Fire Department Newsletter, Vol. 13, No. 50, December 17,1976.

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