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Department deficiencies foster fire hazards in Athens businesses

Kelly Gifford

Although the Athens Fire Department recently received a $1.1 million fire and ladder truck it had been working toward for five years, its requests for additional staffing have yet to be filled.

Despite needing positions across the board, the department petitioned specifically for a fire-prevention specialist, an officer who inspects buildings for fire-code violations to help prevent fires in the city, Athens Fire Chief Bob Troxel said. He added that a specialist has not been on the department’s payroll since 1984.

With 850 businesses in need of at least two inspections each year, Troxel said his staff is stretched too thin to conduct the necessary number of assessments.

“Our staffing is so low that we do inspections mostly by request,” Troxel said, adding that requests are made by both businesses and customers.

Fire-code violations ranging from flammable materials to locked back doors result in either a written warning or a paid citation notice. These citations can cost as much as $1,000.

Although 1,700 inspections should be conducted annually, only 314 have been completed in the past six years, according to the department’s annual reports.

The majority of the violations found in recent years were for locked back doors and malfunctioning exit signs in local businesses, such as bars and restaurants, Troxel said, adding that almost all of the violations were corrected on site.

Big Lots, 918 E. State St., and the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, 94 Columbus Road, each had 14 violations — the most of all the inspections — in 2007 and 2011, respectively, according to the report.

Twenty-one businesses and buildings on Court Street were given four or more violations, including 12 violations at the Athens County Courthouse, 15 S. Court St. The Other Place, 43 S. Court St., was issued nine citations — both buildings received these violations in 2007.

Many other popular Court Street spots had multiple violations: Bagel Street Deli, 27 S. Court St., in 2007; Big Mama’s Burritos, 10 S. Court St., in 2006; and College Book Store, 50 S. Court St., in 2006.

Because of the fire department’s small staff, some businesses were inspected only once in the past six years or left off the inspection list completely.

Cat’s Den’s 2006 inspection was the only inspection of a Court Street bar conducted in the past six years.

Troxel said the rarity of business inspections contributes to many of the safety concerns he has addressed to Athens City Council.

In an effort to combat these concerns, the fire department has requested two to three additional firefighters and a fire-prevention specialist to be added to the staff for the past four years, according to fire-department reports.

Currently, three firefighters are always on duty at each of the department’s two stations. Troxel said that, if an accident were to occur, three firefighters might not be fully equipped to handle it alone.

“It’s a matter of safety for our firefighters,” Troxel said. “If we don’t have enough men on staff, then they don’t have back-up going into a fire.”

Despite requests for staff increases, Athens City Council believes the city is well-protected with the fire staff at its current level, Council President Jim Sands said, adding that additional firefighters are not in the cards in the near future because of the cost to train and pay them.

“A single firefighter costs between $40,000 and $50,000 to pay. Then there is training,” Sands said. “Council could not support this with the state of the city’s current budget.”

Another reason why Council is not budging on its budget is because the Athens Police Department is also seeking a staff increase in the near future.

Though Sands said no new additions to the staff would be made this year, he and Council have every intention to replace any staff member looking to retire, adding that, in a perfect Athens, every chief would get the increase in staff he or she deserves.

“There is never enough money to go around, and unfortunately, everything comes down to money,” Sands said. “But we will do everything to maintain the excellent staff we have over at fire services.”

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