I-Team: Pawtucket apartments went years without inspections

The NBC 10 I-Team has learned there are no recent records of city fire inspections for more than a dozen apartment buildings in Pawtucket.

Rhode Island law requires apartments that house elderly or disabled residents to be inspected by local fire departments, every year.

The I-Team asked for fire inspection records after three apartment fires in Pawtucket happened within eight months of one another.

All of the fires happened inside low-income apartments for elderly and disabled residents.

In August 2012, an early-morning fire inside Slater House, a Pawtucket high rise, forced more than 100 seniors and people with disabilities out of their apartments.

In February, a fire inside an apartment at the Burns Manor housing complex left a 62-year-old man with third-degree burns. The victim, who already had health problems, was hospitalized for months.

In March, 57-year-old Gail DeCarlo was killed after fire broke out inside her apartment in the Northern Plaza building.

"These inspections had never been done," said the city's Director of Administration Tony Pires. "Formal inspections had not been completed by the city of Pawtucket."

Asked why buildings where elderly and disabled people live weren't prioritized for inspections, Pawtucket Fire Chief William Sisson said, "It's something that we're working on and trying to be better at."

The city says that means all 14 of Pawtucket's apartment complexes that house elderly and disabled residents will be inspected this year.

"When that was brought to our attention, (by the I-Team), we instituted a program that we wanted them to start doing the formal inspections," Pires said.

The city says inspections would not have prevented the apartment fires.

At Northern Plaza, fire investigators said smoking caused the deadly fire. At Burns Manor, an illegal space heater was to blame.

NBC 10 contacted the property owners at both buildings, who said their fire alarm inspections are up to date. Those inspections are handled by a private company.

Sisson said firefighters visit the buildings every week to answer medical calls. They also meet with residents once a year to talk about fire safety.

"It was not that these buildings went unchecked, because that's definitely not the reason," he said.

So what was the reason? Pires says a lack of manpower.

Only two firefighters other than the chief are licensed to do inspections, creating a huge backlog. That's expected to improve over the next year, when two more inspectors are trained.

"There just aren't the resources to go around and do that work," Pires said.

Pawtucket's elderly and disabled housing does undergo annual inspections from Department of Housing and Urban Development, in order to receive federal funding. Those inspections are up-to-date.

But the I-Team found another problem.

Photos taken at the scene of the Burns Manor fire show sprinkler pipes on the ceiling, melted from the heat of the fire because there was no water inside.

"The sprinkler system was actually in that room and unfortunately wasn't able to be filled with water at that time," Sisson said.

At the Northern Plaza fire, photos show no sprinklers were installed inside the victim's apartment, a safety measure that could have made the difference.

"Sprinkler systems to do save lives," Sisson said. "There's no doubt whatsoever about that."

But both properties are in line with state law, because property owners have until 2016 to install a full sprinkler system throughout the buildings.

Going forward, city leaders said they'll inspect every apartment building that houses seniors or people with disabilities, every year.

"The greater good is that you take a step back and see how you've been operating," Pires said.