Redwood City fire inspections fall behind

The blaze that destroyed a 99 Cent and Over store on El Camino Real last February did more than gut a business — it was the second time, owner Amadeo Penas said, he lost everything he’d invested in order to open a store.

For many mom-and-pop stores, the business represents a family’s life savings. The loss of the business “would be devastating,” said Susan Nejman, owner of Cook’s Upholstery, a vehicle-upholstery shop. “We also work on people’s cars that are worth up to a million dollars, so we need to be very careful.”

But many businesses may be wide open to future blazes as Redwood City has fallen behind on its fire inspections. Although the City Council gave $75,000 last July to hiring an inspector, the fire department has not done so, primarily because it has struggled to find an experienced inspector who is willing to work part time.

Fire Marshal Louis Vella said many fire employees have to take time out from their regular work in order to perform inspections.

“What I’m looking for is someone I can put on the street with minimal training, and it’s not easy to find somebody like that,” Vella said. Although a six-month search has come up empty, he’s optimistic that he will find an inspector soon.

There are 3,684 businesses in Redwood City, 630 of which are in need of fire permits — and, hence, inspections. They include restaurants, theaters, repair shops, manufacturing plants and auto-relatedbusinesses.

While Vella likes to make sure businesses are inspected annually, just 252 of the 630 — or 40 percent — were inspected in 2007. Many haven’t been inspected in three to five years, he said.

Fire inspectors try to keep up with major fire-risk buildings, including large restaurants and schools, but others have fallen by the wayside, Vella said.

Redwood City saw 41 commercial fires in 2007, six of which caused more than $10,000 in damage, according to data from the Redwood City Fire Department. In total, fires cost businesses $14.4 million in losses.

Inspections can be one way of preventing such fires from happening, Vella said. They can be extensive, looking at everything from whether alarm and sprinkler systems are functioning to whether an auto-body shop’s storage facilities are keeping flammable liquids properly contained.

Plus, regular inspections keep business owners in the habit of knowing what the rules are, Vella said.

“We enjoy the inspections, call us crazy,” said Nejman. “It’s your business, and your liability — and you might wind up overlooking something you need to be doing.”

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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