Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fire Audit Finds Poor Records on Inspections Officials Stress Need to Modernize System

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fire Audit Finds Poor Records on Inspections Officials Stress Need to Modernize System

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Patterson, Times-Union staff writer

Jacksonville's system for enforcing fire codes overlooked some businesses entirely and inspected others less often than fire officials had thought, according to an early version of a city-funded audit.

Auditors said the city Fire Prevention Division apparently had no records for 55 percent of the companies they picked randomly from the telephone book.

Inspection records for a few other businesses may have been inaccurate, and one shop owner insisted a signature acknowledging inspection results was forged.

The draft audit, which consultant Ernst & Young sent to City Hall this week, corroborates a Times-Union report in June that detailed mismanagement and loafing at the agency responsible for fire safety.

Fire officials said the auditors' report underscored a need to modernize the agency, especially its system for identifying buildings under its jurisdiction.

"Our system is just not good," Fire Chief Ray Alfred said. "It confirms for us that we need to make changes."

Substantial changes have already begun, Alfred and other administrators hastened to say. They pointed to a series of reforms since summer, including extensive personnel changes, a pending management reorganization and the use of neighborhood firefighters to conduct some routine inspections.

But the division's problems won't be fixed until it's fully modernized, said Wesley Royal, president of the Jacksonville firefighters union.

"They need a computerized system," Royal said. "Until they decide they're going to fix the problem, they're just going to go ahead and Band-Aid it."

The division's inspection records are currently stored in files in 45 four-drawer filing cabinets.

Fire officials are still considering how to identify all the buildings they're supposed to inspect. Alfred said a database built from records at the Duval County property appraiser's office may be the best choice, but won't list newly-built commercial properties. Alfred said he believes Mayor John Delaney will agree to find money for added computerization if the fire department's current budget can't handle it.

Delaney's press secretary, Sharon Ashton, said the Mayor's Office was reviewing the draft audit and didn't want to comment on the findings until the report has been finalized.

Division Chief Ted Holmes, who took the job in July, said the agency is already reforming itself. Among the changes:

-- Every employee below the rank of lieutenant who performed inspections has been transferred out of the division or resigned, with the exception of one now assigned to desk work.

-- Captains and lieutenants now dispense assignments to subordinates daily and review the completed work. The audit acknowledged that, but said managers need to document that in writing. …

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