Up in Flames
On Wednesday, February 2, the City of Miami Beach hosted a prosaic little event, a groundbreaking ceremony for a new fire station and the renovation of an old one. A blue tent was set up in a dusty lot while fire trucks and paving equipment rumbled nearby. Yet more than two hours after the scheduled affair, no one had shown up to toss a ceremonial shovelful of dirt -- not the mayor, not the city manager, not the fire chief.
In the eyes of Miami Beach fire inspector Jim Llewellyn, it was an apt metaphor for the city's attitude toward the building about to be replaced, Fire Station No. 2, at 23rd Street and Pinetree Drive. Through governmental neglect, the decrepit building was on its way to an absurd fate for a working fire station -- it was becoming a fire hazard.
"I had deemed it an unsafe structure and asked for some followup," says Llewellyn, a 49-year-old who wears a classic fireman's bushy mustache. Station No. 2, it turns out, is not an isolated example. Llewellyn has the peculiar distinction of having written citations against at least five city-owned buildings for fire-code violations. In many cases the city simply ignores the citations, and Llewellyn, a 21-year veteran of the Beach fire department, is fed up.
Llewellyn has an intimate knowledge of Fire Station No. 2, in part because that's where his desk is. It also happens to fall within his inspection zone, the roughly 30-block area of Mid-Beach where Llewellyn is charged with examining buildings to make sure they've met fire-code requirements.
Fire Station No. 2 did not.
In September 2004, Llewellyn wrote a four-page report listing 37 fire-code violations and giving his employer, the City of Miami Beach, 30 days to correct them. Included in that list: not providing a fire-alarm system in the station's dormitory; not providing a sprinkler system in the rooming house; no smoke detectors in the dorm, officer's room, and kitchen; blocked fire exits; and not maintaining smoke detectors throughout the building.
In October fire officials tried to address one of the violations by installing "fire-rated" doors. One problem -- they did it without a building permit and were promptly ticketed by the city's building department.
No. 2's condition prompted Llewellyn to look up its inspection history. Five years ago another fire inspector cited the building for nineteen code violations, many of them the same as the current ones: "Smoke detectors not provided: Numerous areas in Station 2 are without smoke detector protection, especially sleeping areas for the combat division chief, engine crew, rescue crew, and lieutenant."
Llewellyn was incensed: "These are standard, everyday violations that people get fined for -- and [city officials] just ignore it."
This fits a pattern of the city ignoring its own codes, he says. In June of last year he found a malfunctioning alarm panel at the Scott Rakow Youth Center, prompting a two-month, around-the-clock "fire watch." A security guard was hired to monitor the building in case a fire broke out. Cost to the city: $17,000.
This past July Llewellyn cited the city's public-works building, located next door to Station No. 2, after a report by a private contractor noted that "smoke detectors are not responding to smoke or magnetic tests" and that "the system has not been operational in at least three or four years!"
"I've been put in the ludicrous position of having to take the city to its own special-master court system to gain compliance for fire-code violations on some city-owned buildings," Llewellyn grumbles. And only once does he recall city officials actually showing up at a hearing. Most of the time, he says, they simply ignore the proceedings. After all, what's the city going to do, fine itself? Well, yes.
Some of the structures are already accumulating fines because violations haven't been corrected. The public-works building, for example, has been accruing a $150-per-day fine since November 29 because the city has not fixed the problems, nor did representatives appear at a special-master hearing to defend the city. (Miami Beach has asserted a sovereign-immunity defense: It can't be fined because it's a municipality.)
"What sticks in my craw is that this is really about abuse of authority," Llewellyn says. "These are people in a position of power who decide they are not going to be held accountable."
Such outspokenness, and perhaps such persistence, is not entirely appreciated at city hall. City manager Jorge Gonzalez and Fire Department Chief Floyd Jordan claim Llewellyn has an ulterior motive. "I believe the motivation for this is my position on hiring civilian fire inspectors," says Jordan, adding that it would save money and free up trained firefighters to ride the trucks. Such a move is opposed by the firefighters' union to which Llewellyn belongs.
"It's ironic that these actions follow very closely some actions the fire chief has taken," adds Gonzalez, referring to the plan to hire civilian inspectors. (Gonzalez doesn't mean "ironic." He means "suspicious." But a fire station with fire-code violations? That's "ironic.")
Gonzalez continues: "I mean, if you're trying to seek compliance, there are people you can go to in the chain of command. But we never got the chance to evaluate remedies because the inspector chose other avenues." In addition to New Times, Llewellyn notified the state fire marshal's office and the mayor's office, and has been reprimanded for taking the issue outside the chain of command.
"Assuming that was my motivation -- and it's not -- so what?" the inspector retorts. "The violations speak for themselves. Are they implying that had there been no attempt to hire civilian inspectors, I would've turned a blind eye to these violations? That's absurd."
Indeed when pushed, both Gonzalez and Jordan say they don't mean to suggest the citations aren't warranted. "My understanding is that some violations are more pressing than others," Gonzales offers. "We address them as we can."
"When we send our inspectors out there, we support what they do," says Jordan, who finds himself in the awkward position of defending his inspectors' work while explaining the code violations in his own buildings. "The intent of everybody here is to do the correct and right thing. There's no conspiracy at work."
Llewellyn, meanwhile, perseveres in his work. This past November he tried to drag the city to yet another special-master hearing, this one for failure to correct violations at Fire Station No. 3, at Collins Avenue and 53rd Street. City officials didn't show. They've since claimed they didn't receive notice.
A new hearing has been scheduled for March 17.
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