Fire code enforcement could spell trouble for business owners

By Eric Stearley

At an informational meeting held at the city courthouse Wednesday, Sept. 25, Wabash Fire Chief Robert Mullett announced that the requirement for a fire watch is now being enforced. This mandates that business owners with a fire protection system will need to hire someone to watch the building for fire should the system go down for any reason, or chose to evacuate the building completely until the system is functioning. The fire watch personnel must also be a certified fire fighter in the state of Indiana and must be approved by the fire chief.

“This is not going to be popular,” said Mullett. “Whether it’s popular or not, it has to be addressed.”

This requirement is not new. It has been in place for nearly a decade. Fire departments and businesses in the Wabash area have been largely unaware of this regulation due to lax oversight in the past.

“In the past several years, we have had state fire marshals for this area that were less than active in this area,” said Mullett. “The man who has taken over this area is quite active and frankly, recites fire code off the top of his head. He doesn’t treat anyone differently.”

Knowledge of the fire watch regulation came to light when the fire safety system at Miller’s Merry Manor went down six months ago. The fire marshal for the area heard about the incident and asked the staff whom they had on fire watch. Miller’s had no one on watch, as they were unaware of the regulation. They were not the only ones.

“Honestly, this is completely new to me,” said Mullett. “I don’t have all the answers to it.”

Larger cities that have implemented this requirement have set up a system to deal with the problem. Fort Wayne Fire Department hires out fire fighters to work as fire watches for $25 per hour. This, however, can cause hardship for business owners. If a system were down for one week and needed to be watched night and day, the business owner would be looking at a $4,200 bill. In this case, however, money is not the primary issue on the minds of these business owners.

“I can’t guarantee to have enough people to do that regardless of who is paying the bill,” said Mullett.

Mullett is chief of the Wabash Fire Department. The department has two stations and also operates an ambulance. Mullett described a situation the previous week where a particularly bad wreck required seven fire personnel. That left a single person at each of the two stations. Mullet said there is no way he can afford to pull his firefighters out of emergency situations to cover a fire watch in a building that is not on fire.

“Why do I have to be trained to your level to look around my building and say ‘there’s a fire’? That’s all an alarm system does is alert people that there’s a fire,” Gary Sweet of Heartland Career Center asked Chief Mullet.

The chief and the city’s attorney explained that you wouldn’t really need to be trained as a firefighter to do a fire watch, except that it is required by the fire code as it stands, and they have to abide by the fire code.

“This requirement doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said city attorney Doug Lehman. “The main thing you’re there for is to call the fire department and you don’t need to be a trained firefighter to do that.”

Mullett and Lehman urged business owners in attendance to contact their state representatives and ask for the law to be changed. This, however, is not the immediate fix to the problem that is needed. As this law has been in place since 2003, there is no grace period for implementation.

In addition to full-time firefighters, volunteer firefighters meet the state requirements for a fire watch. A list is currently being developed of all eligible firefighters so that if a business the need for one, the fire chief can attempt to get someone other than his on-duty staff to cover the watch. Even so, Mullet explains that this is not enough.

“I hope to have enough people on the list so that if you keep going down the list and calling you find somebody to come in,” said Mullett. “But even if I had 100 people on the list I can’t guarantee that we can get anyone to come in.”

He also explained the issues regarding liability while being a fire watch. While $20-30 an hour might sound good, if a fire does occur during a fire watch, the person on watch could be held responsible for property damage and personal injury.

“I don’t know how many people want to take that on for $20-30 an hour and have the responsibility if something happens,” Mullett explained. “No one wants to carry liability insurance on the off chance they get called to do a fire watch once a year. I would do everything in my power to provide a fire watch. You just gotta understand there are gonna be times I can’t get anybody.”

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the business owner. It is the responsibility of the owner, not the fire department, to find someone to cover the watch. If they cannot find someone to cover the watch, they must evacuate the building. Not even a single person can be inside the building until a technician arrives to fix the system problem. If a certified fire watch is not present and the building is not evacuated, the owner is subject to a fine.

This may not pose a massive problem to some small businesses. While they may not want to evacuate for a number of reasons, it could be reasonably done. A much larger problem arises when you look at situations like the Wabash County Hospitals, or any of the nursing homes in the area, such as Millers Merry Manor where this story started. If the fire system in the hospital went down for any reason, there is no reasonable way they could evacuate all the patients. The same is true for the nursing homes, especially now that it’s getting to the colder side of the calendar. Large manufacturers could also have problems evacuating. In these cases, it is reasonable that if a fire watch could not be found, the owner might choose to pay the fine to avoid evacuation. If everything goes well, that might not be a huge problem.

“If someone gets hurt or someone loses property, I think there’s a big liability for business owners,” said Mullet.

This is the real issue in regards to the regulation. If business owners fail to protect their customers and employees with a fire watch, they could face heavy lawsuits and even negligence charges in the event that someone was seriously injured or killed by a fire in an unprotected building.

This being the case, business owners in attendance suggested an alternative, or rather, addition to the plan involving a list of certified fire watches. They have suggested that the city hold a certified firefighter-training course. Their hope is that they will be able to send a number of employees to get trained as a firefighter, taking the fire watch availability issue into their own hands. Employees working a fire watch at their business would not be able to do anything else while on the fire watch, but having them on staff has it’s benefits. In addition to added availability in the case of an emergency, the employees would know the building more thoroughly than an outsider. Most importantly, they could be covered on the company’s insurance policy, eliminating the liability issue.

Plans are underway to host a class, though date and location have yet to be decided. Business owners interested in training employees should call the Northside Fire Department and ask for Chief Mullett, leave a voicemail with your phone number, name, and jurisdiction, or email him at If you are already certified as a firefighter, retired and/or not currently working at a department, and would like to be put on the list to be called when a fire watch is needed, contact Chief Mullett by phone or email.

Posted on 2013 Oct 01