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September 01, 2014 | NATIONAL Gordon Wren, Correspondent

Yesterday afternoon I responded to a working structure fire in what turned out to be a former one-family home that had been converted to a rooming house. The fire was determined to be caused by illegally installed electrical equipment. The occupants all evacuated the building, but things may have been different if this fire took place at 3:00 a.m. instead of 3:00 p.m.

Every year firefighters and civilians die or are injured in fires that are electrical in origin. Sometimes the fires occur in buildings where the entire electrical system is totally up to code, and the residents do dumb things that result in a fire. Then there are other electrical fires that are caused by inferior work done by homeowners or unlicensed contractors.

In our county, we have experienced a tremendous number of illegal conversions. Numerous buildings are being renovated, with non-habitable spaces being converted illegally. In many cases, a building permit would never be issued for basements, or attics/garages because they cannot meet the basic code requirements. However, certain contractors will still take these jobs, knowing there will be no inspections of their work. In many cases, they cut corners, thus increasing the chances for a fire. In the cases where non-habitable spaces have been converted, the residents frequently do not have a second means of egress. The conditions created by these illegal conversions put our firefighters at increased risk when they enter these buildings.

Thousands of men, women and children are living in these illegally converted spaces - just in our county. In recognition of the seriousness of this situation, we are using some unorthodox techniques for going after the bad guys who put our firefighters and residents in jeopardy.

We have developed a working relationship with our local utility; and when a building owner applies for utility meters and there is no building permit issued for the building renovation/construction, the utility will refuse to issue and install a meter. This has been very effective. In addition, when we find that illegal work has taken place without permits, we will reach out to our county's Office of Consumer Protection and Board of Electrical Examiners, who can hold hearings, issue penalties, and suspend licenses for contractors to work in our county. In addition, we are asking all Fire Chiefs to be vigilant in order to ferret out illegal work with a referral to the local building and fire inspectors, as well as our County Health Department, where applicable.

Next month we are inspecting several of these buildings with representatives from the local building department, the Health Department, etc. When serious violations are discovered, violations will be issued by multiple agencies. Each agency can levy fines and penalties, and we hope to put tremendous pressure on the slum landlords.

When fires take place in illegally converted buildings and occupants die or firefighters become trapped, those responsible should be held accountable. We are trying to hold them accountable before people die.

I will share the details on some of the worst cases in future columns.

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Gordon WrenCorrespondent

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