Lower Macungie may require fire safety inspections for businesses

Posted: 7:37 AM EDT Oct 05, 2012   Updated: 7:58 AM EDT Oct 05, 2012
Lower Macungie commissioners

Commissioners are moving toward mandatory fire safety inspections of all commercial properties in Lower Macungie Twp., Lehigh County.

On Thursday night, the commissioners unanimously directed the township solicitor to develop a commercial fire inspection safety ordinance.

If approved, that ordinance will create an inspection program to protect lives and property in about 325 Lower Macungie businesses, explained Commissioner Roger C. Reis, who chairs the commissioners’ public safety committee.

Reis said every two years, a certified fire inspector will go into every business to look for fire safety violations, better protecting both employees and customers.

Business owners will get copies of the inspector’s report and given a specific amount of time to rectify any violations. The inspector will return when that time period is up to make sure problems no longer exit.

Reis said township fire officials now see violations when they go into businesses after being called to a building for emergencies or other reasons. Those violations include improper storage of combustible or hazardous chemicals, unsafe wiring, smoke alarms that never were hooked up and blocked or even padlocked fire exits.

Reis said now those fire officials “don’t have a legal right to go in and do an inspection.”

Stressing fire prevention will be the goal of the inspection program, Reis said: “Rather than going in after a fire and saying ‘this is what caused it,’ they want to go in and maybe prevent that fire.”

One store with violations could put all the other businesses in the same strip mall in danger, said Reis.

“An individual who has a business is not trained in fire prevention,” he said.

The ordinance will include unspecified inspection fees which probably will be determined by the square footage of buildings, because it takes longer to inspect larger buildings.

But the commissioner stressed those fees only will cover the cost of doing inspections and will not generate any revenue for the township. He added there will be no fees for follow-up visits to ensure compliance.

“We want to look at this as part of our obligation for the health, safety and public welfare of the community,” said Reis.

The township’s administrative staff and fire department have developed a draft ordinance. Solicitor Richard Somach also will review Upper Macungie Township’s similar ordinance.

Commissioner Ryan Conrad said he wants to see figures showing how often the Lower Macungie fire department responds to commercial building fires.

Resident Ron Beitler, who identified himself as a small business owner concerned about increased costs, told commissioners he is “wary of regulations that address problems that might not exist.”

Said Beitler: “I’d like to see some sort of data, as Ryan suggested.”

Reis responded: “We’re not trying to put more burdens on businesses.”

Ron Eichenberg, president of the commissioners, predicted the inspection program will reduce insurance rates for every business in Lower Macungie, because insurance companies offer discounts if professional fire safety inspections are done.

After the meeting, Reis indicated the ordinance may not be passed for at least a couple of months. He expects it will exclude one-person businesses run out of offices in homes.

In another public safety matter, Lt. Paul Gaspich, new commander of the Pennsylvania state police station at Fogelsville, told commissioners: “We’re proud to be your primary police agency.”

“This area is going to be well covered by the state police,” promised Gaspich, who came to the meeting to introduce himself. “I can assure you my troopers will be very proactive and very visible in your township.”

He said at least two state police officers per shift are working in Lower Macungie, adding many more often are patrolling the township. He said that includes midnight shifts, explaining two troopers ride in one car on those shifts so they have immediate back-up.

“I’m a big proponent of getting troopers into the neighborhoods and checking the schools,” said Gaspich. “I have mandated that my troopers check each school in your township at least once per shift. They definitely are a target of terrorism, both domestic and overseas. ”

He wants his troopers to go into schools and do a quick meet-and-greets with people in the main office to see if there are any problems or issues police should know about. “A lot of times the kids see us in the hall and that makes a big impact on behavior, especially with older students.”

Gaspich said many more drunk drivers are being arrested by his officers than in previous years and many more hours of overtime have been authorized to step up DUI enforcement. He indicated his officers also are issuing more traffic citations and warnings.

“I’m very proud of the enforcement efforts of this station,” said Gaspich.

He encouraged commissioners to e-mail him directly about issues involving speeding or people not stopping at stop signs or traffic lights. “We will assign a trooper at least once per shift to monitor that complaint.”

The commander, who has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience, became head of the Fogelsville station in July.

He said Pennsylvania state police are down more than 500 members across Pennsylvania, but that cutback has not had much impact on the Fogelsville station, explaining he just got four more officers. “My complement at Fogelsville stands at over 60 people. Our station is one of the largest stations in the entire Commonwealth.”

He handed out pamphlets explaining what state police do for local communities and encouraged township officials to give those pamphlets to all new residents.Gaspich didn’t mention it, but the commissioners recently have authorized a study to help them determine if they want Lower Macungie to remain under state police protection or move toward other options, such as starting a township police department or joining forces with another local police department.