Ahead of Super Bowl, Houston Hotels Lack Fire Inspections
St. John Barned-Smith Houston Chronicle On Feb 3, 2017
Feb. 03–Fans flooding into Houston for Super Bowl LI could land in hotels and motels that have not been fully inspected, a local critic of the Houston Fire Marshal’s office said Thursday.
Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney who has represented fire inspectors, said the department scaled back inspections about a year ago in favor of self-inspection forms that could be filled out by the facilities.
“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of people from out of town staying in our motels and hotels and they have not had the proper fire inspection,” Kallinen said.
Records were not immediately available to show how many of the city’s hotels and motels have received inspections in the past year. The Chronicle asked the fire department Jan. 11 for the records under the Texas public information laws, but the department has not produced any records related to that request.
Fire Marshal Jerry Ford did not respond to specific questions from the Chronicle about the inspections, but in an email late Thursday denied ordering subordinates to delay or cease inspections.
“On the contrary, inspectors were instructed to ensure that fire suppression system inspection reports were up-to-date for all facilities being utilized during the Super Bowl,” he said. “The safety of our citizens and visitors is our number one concern.”
The city houses about 700 hotels and motels, according to employees with the fire marshal’s office. But only two inspectors — out of about 100 in the office — handle the bulk of those inspections; some of the larger hotels are assigned to the department’s high-rise team.
The fire code grants the city the authority to inspect those facilities but does not set a time limit on how frequently they must be reviewed.
Kallinen’s allegations come months inspectors raised concerns over what they said was an order from Ford to stop performing physical inspections and instead send out “pre-inspection checklists” to hotels and other buildings to verify they had proper fire suppression systems and fire alarms.
Some inspectors told the Chronicle that the orders compromised public safety and caused the number of buildings receiving inspections to plummet.
Others defended Ford’s order as a way to try to address safety issues with limited inspectors and little time before the Super Bowl.
Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Patrick M. Lancton said the allegations and staffing levels underscore the need for more resources at the Houston Fire Department.
“If true, the allegation raises some troubling questions,” Lancton said. “The question really becomes, ‘[Are] there enough assets to go out there and inspect these buildings when they’re required?’ We don’t believe there’s enough assets. I don’t believe in an expanding city like ours, that life safety and permitting and inspections should be something that’s not a high, high priority, especially in the event of an emergency.”
The allegations this week are the latest in a series of controversial incidents at the Fire Marshal’s Office over the past few years.
In 2014, fire inspectors balked at orders not to cite city buildings that violated local safety codes.
At the time, then-Fire Chief Terry Garrison dismissed the inspectors’ allegations, saying they had “little merit” and came from “disgruntled employees.”
The city’s Office of Inspector General, however, launched an investigation into the claims that resulted in the demotion of then-Fire Marshal Richard Galvan.
Then last year, the office became embroiled in controversy after inspectors accused Ford of ordering them to skip floors when inspecting high-rises to speed up the process.
Kallinen, who represented inspectors in several of those controversies, reiterated his concerns Thursday that the department has cited businesses for fire safety violations but has not corrected similar violations at city buildings.
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