On a bitter cold, windy night at 1:36 a.m., a fire broke out in a multiple dwelling. The fire started inside an interior wall, spreading to a mansard roof while numerous residents slept, not knowing that a major fire was burning in the concealed spaces of their building. I happened to be the first unit on the scene and reported to dispatch that we had heavy fire, with numerous people still in the building. In fact, the situation was eerie because there was literally no evidence of human activity inside the building. There were no lights on, and the parking lot was full of cars. I remember pulling my vehicle to the front of the building and placing the siren on yelp to awaken occupants and then running through the buildings with a Police Officer, knocking on doors. Ultimately, several search teams rescued occupants, with one fatality and several injuries.
An intense investigation took place, zeroing in on the exact location where the fire started inside a wall. At some point in the past, electrical work had taken place in one of the units - improperly. We were never able to determine who the person was. He or she may have been a homeowner, a well-meaning friend, a handyman, an unlicensed contractor or a licensed contractor cutting corners. The individual who made the faulty connection never realized that their mistake would put approximately 40 peoples' lives in extreme jeopardy, as well as all the firefighters who searched through the building. They unknowingly killed an innocent woman and almost killed several more.
Recently, we have been encountering numerous residential one and two-family homes being illegally converted into rooming houses and small apartments. The construction related to these illegal conversions is generally not inspected; and because there are no inspections or building permits, the codes are frequently ignored. This is particularly dangerous when dealing with load-bearing structural changes and with electrical work.
The problem has become so prevalent that we have decided to address this problem by going after the contractors who are doing this work. We are in the process of obtaining search warrants to inspect some of the illegal buildings and will be working with our local Office of Consumer Protection, the county's Board of Electrical Examiners, the local Health Department and municipal fire/building inspectors' offices. In addition, we are working with our local utility to prevent the installation of electric meters in illegally converted or constructed buildings - no building permit, then no meter will be installed. We intend to prosecute those individuals doing shoddy work without permits and hope to get the word out to prevent future illegal conversions and prevent future fires and deaths.