Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

New fees for city’s fire system certification

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To increase the regularity of inspections on sprinklers and other commercial fire protection systems, Gaithersburg could soon require businesses to pay for an annual verification permit for each device.

The $50 permit cost was adopted in June as part of the city’s fee schedule, similar to a system Montgomery County fire officials began in January.

While Gaithersburg code officials have performed checks through rental housing inspections, random checks and permitting for system upgrades and renovations, the city has never required a systematic verification process.

A final plan has not been designated, and there might be a public work session this fall, said Greg Ossont, director of the city’s Planning and Code Administration.

‘‘As a minimum, given our limited staffing here in the city, this will at least be some means we can ensure they’re doing inspections and testing,” said Gaithersburg Fire Marshal Ivan Humberson. ‘‘If there are systems out there having problems, we’re going to be able to find out more readily.”

But for some business owners, a potential annual permit fee is an unnecessary expense.

One permit should be enough, while inspections could occur based on the frequency of offenses, said Paul Chod, president of commercial real estate firm Minkoff Development in Germantown.

Domenic Cicala, director of O’Hair Salon and Spa in the Kentlands, said the benefit of this new tax should be evident, but that at this point he doesn’t see it.

‘‘We existed a long time without it,” he said.

County fire officials say their new procedure will ensure that fire systems in the county’s about 35,000 businesses are checked, beginning with residential high-rise buildings. Private residences are not included.

‘‘What we discovered was that there were some building owners and operators that simply didn’t know what the requirements were and never had ‘em done,” said Michael Donahue, assistant fire chief with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services.

The county’s Fire Safety Systems and Structures program stipulates businesses use contractors, then submit results to the county. Code inspectors then follow up.

The county review costs $35 per 25 minutes for each county inspector, in addition to the $50 permit. The property owner is responsible for the permitting, Donahue said.

The fees will help defray the cost to double the number of code inspectors the department could need, said county fire code inspector Matt Kelleher. They currently have about 24 inspectors, he said.