How long should it take to force an apartment manager to provide enough fire extinguishers? Or to make a bar owner unlock fire exits?
Under Anne Arundel County's near-ancient fire code, the process can take months. First, the fire inspector drives out to one of the 10,000 buildings the county inspects. He finds a violation and orders the building owner to correct it by such-and-such a date. Such-and-such a date arrives, the inspector goes back to re-check, and, lo and behold, still no fire extinguishers.
That's where the inspector's authority ends. Now, he has to set up a hearing before the state Fire Prevention Commission, which meets monthly. Just setting up an appointment can take months. When the inspector finally gets one, he has to drive wherever in Maryland the commission happens to be meeting. He pleads his case, then awaits the group's decision.
A large county such as Anne Arundel should have had its own enforcement powers long ago. Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties all have codes tailored to local needs. But Anne Arundel's code -- which hasn't been updated since 1968 -- still requires inspectors to operate under state regulations.
New legislation introduced by County Executive Robert R. Neall would change that. The bill extensively revises the entire fire code, but the most important changes broaden the inspectors' authority in two major ways.
First, the proposed revision lets them issue civil fines on the spot to those who refuse to comply, eliminating the need to go through the state board. Most building owners will be smart enough to see the financial benefits of uncluttering corridors or investing in fire extinguishers rather than pay $100 for the first violation, $250 for a second, and so forth.
Second, the bill speeds arson investigations by giving inspectors access to state and national law-enforcement computer systems. As it is, inspectors must ask police to research suspected arsonists, costing the inspectors days in a business where time is of the essence.
The fire code revisions mark an important, long-overdue step in ensuring the safety of thousands of residents. The County Council should make sure this legislation gets passed.