Discussion continued on the “Fire Code”

2 Sep

The ongoing discussion about the Fire Code and the Fire Inspector got rather interesting Tuesday evening at the ESD board meeting.  Lt. Tom Hines made a very well thought out slide presentation about the need for a Fire Code such as we have, along with examples of what firemen often face, and a strong plea for the board to support both the code and the firefighters. In simpilest terms one could boil it down to SAFETY: the safety of the public and the safety of the firemen themselves. He showed one example of a fire which destroyed a building which had been inspected, but then hazardous materials had been moved in without notification nor any warning signs. Obviously that sort of thing is a major problem.

However, I do not believe, (nor do board members who voiced concerns, nor businesses I have spoken to), that the Fire Code is the issue. We need a Fire Code and we need it enforced. That is a given. The issue is how it is enforced, the way inspections and enforcement issues businesses and property owners may have are addressed. Chief Kerwood rightly sees those as personnel issues and not ones for the board to discuss.  It perhaps may be summed up as presentation and attitude. And that is exactly where all the complaints, the rumors, the antidotes (some exaggerated) originate.

A good example is a story that has circulated I mentioned in a previous post. It concerns representatives of a national firm who were looking at a building and property  and were waiting for the real estate broker to arrive and show the property. As the story goes this firm might have brought 50-100 jobs to Hutto but were “scared” off by an impromptu stop by the Fire Inspector who saw them looking at the property and stopped, “grilled them” about what their plans might be and then gave a verbal laundry list of what might be needed to meet fire code.  Lt. Hines said the company had been contacted and said they didn’t have any representatives looking at property in the area, and therefor the story wasn’t true. Glen Pierce, board member and owner of a large business in Tradesman Park, disagreed. He said the men were “real estate acquisitioners”, not company representatives. He went on to say that companies looking for property often do not announce it or tell people what they are thinking about until they have decided the property is actually of interest and worth getting into more detail. They do this as a way to protect their business, to keep prices from going up, and a variety of other reasons. They would no more wish to discuss Fire Code requirements at this very preliminary stage than they would wish to talk with a building inspector. It would be far to premature.

Side Bar: For those who are unfamiliar with what a person does who in the field of real estate acquisition, think of them as “headhunters”, only for properties not personnel. There are many individuals and companies who specialize in finding properties. They may represent one firm or a number of different firms. Like a headhunter they seek out opportunities which may fit their client’s criteria, and they often go to new areas just to learn about them. Scott Martinez, Executive Director of the HEDC, deals with them all the time, encouraging them to come to Hutto and learn more about what we have to offer. Sometimes they have a particular business in mind but often they don’t – they are just learning more about why companies should be considering Hutto, what our strengths are. If you wish to know more, call Scott.

Back to the situation described. It is highly probable the national company in the story did not have anyone here but that there were still people looking on their behalf without their knowledge. It is just as likely they did not wish anyone to know, especially employees and competitors, they were even considering locating a plant. For anyone to talk to them about what may be required for a business here, especially without being invited or without the Realtor’s ok, could create a real financial liability. It could also mean that people who might be in the position to recommend Hutto to a number of different companies may have been put off.  That is the issue of the story going around, not the code.

Much of the discussion over the Fire Code has been a result of the issues facing the three business parks West of Hutto, and requirements which have meant it is financially not feasible to build new facilities on vacant land or renovate buildings for certain uses, rendering the property unusable and unsalable.  There may be long term solutions, but for most it simply means the property owners sit paying taxes yet have no way of doing anything with their property.  This is another, longer discussion for another post.

There is also the issue of a business which was forced to shut down for a week, thereby losing 25% of its monthly revenue, before it was “discovered” it was not in the Hutto ESD boundaries and that the inspector had no authority to do so. The business owner is back in business and did receive an apology, but one would think with a large, very detailed map at the fire station showing the boundaries, the mistake should have never happened. And yes, I did confirm the facts with the business owner.

Let me reiterate in closing. ESD #3 does an outstanding job. I personally believe Chief Kerwood is a good fire chief, and that the current Fire Code is needed and has to be enforced for everyone’s safety.  It is how it is enforced, and how businesses perceive it, that needs to be addressed. Business owners should view the Fire Inspection as an ally, not a foe. But unless the business is known to cut corners and flout the rules,  appointments should be made and solutions sought to any problems found. Let’s focus on finding solutions, especially in the business parks, and not on creating further animosity.


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