Assistant Deputy Chief holds a portable radio

Deputy Fire Chief Jack Burt holds up a radio destined for fire prevention officers who often work alone in the field, in areas that could be hazardous as they inspect fire scenes. Burt says being alone, the inspectors need an instant way to communicate with the department in case of an emergency, (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

The job sends them into the line of fire, but instead of flames, fire inspectors battle hostility, hoarding, and flying smoke alarms.

It’s not an easy gig to enforce fire rules – especially in places you’re not wanted – which is why the London Fire Department is hoping to equip all of its prevention inspectors with portable radios, which are essentially grown-up walkie-talkies, to keep them safe on the job.

“Our inspectors are law enforcement officers. They’re in the field, enforcing the law,” said deputy chief Jack Burt, noting that can include tickets and fines, or even court challenges.

Home and buildings owners aren’t always so pleased to hear what inspectors have to say, Burt notes.

“We’ve had everything from bricks thrown at people to smoke detectors and batteries thrown at people.”

The city is divided into five parts, and each area has a team. If an inspector is going to a particularly challenging building, or suspects they’ll be met with violence, they often team up. But most often, fire prevention inspectors work alone.

The portable radios would allow firefighters to communicate quickly with dispatchers to alert them of any rising tension. They also come with an emergency button that, when pushed, would call police to the scene.

The total cost of the project is about $60,000, according to a staff report. That would equip 21 full-time fire prevention inspectors with radios, plus three “spares.”

The proposal, which was unanimously backed by the community and protective services committee, will go to council for a final decision on June 11.

Previously, inspectors were using an app on their smartphones as an instant communication tool, but Burt says the program frequently dropped calls (especially in basements or buildings with thick concrete, frequent locales for fire inspectors), forcing a new log-in to the app – not very effective in an emergency situation.

“Sometimes you don’t know what kind of interaction you’re going to have with someone you’ve never met,” Burt said, pointing out that many times inspectors give orders that would require an owner to put some cash behind an upgrade.

It’s not exactly a recipe for a cozy chat. “People become aggressive,” Burt said.

Frequent fixes required of building owners include the need for more drywall, ceiling fixes to prevent fire from travelling from one unit to another, as well as smoke alarm checks, Burt says.

He stresses that’s one of the most important checks, because in 90 per cent of fatal fires, there is something wrong with the smoke detector, either because it’s not working or it’s been purposely dismantled.

“I want all my staff to come home safe. This just gives us another tool in our toolbox to do that,” Burt said.

Source: Portable radios would help keep fire inspectors safe