CLEARWATER — Firefighters didn't know what to expect when they arrived at the Aerosonic fire last week.
Not since February 1997 had fire inspectors visited the aviation manufacturing business at 1212 N Hercules Ave.
The 11-year lapse in inspections has raised questions about the state of fire safety in Clearwater, but officials said it wouldn't have made a difference in the Aerosonic fire.
"Had it been inspected today, tomorrow or one hour before the fire, it would have had no bearing on the fire," said Clearwater Fire Marshal Steve Strong.
Strong explained there were other failures of compliance. The company is supposed to give the city an annual report of the chemicals it uses, but Aerosonic hasn't filed the report since 2006.
"I know what was in there based on the paperwork I have," Strong said. "It was not up to date."
An Aerosonic spokesman did not return calls.
That's not to say firefighters were exposed to dangerous chemicals, Strong added. He declined to say what was there because of an ongoing investigation into the cause of the fire, but he said the chemicals were of "slight concern."
The broader problem may be the torpor of the inspection process. While the state fire marshal requires local departments to make "periodic" inspections of all commercial and industrial buildings and some residential buildings, no definition is offered for the word "periodic."
Generally, certain types of buildings are inspected every year, such as hospitals, schools and assisted living facilities, to name a few.
But inspectors are supposed to go into other buildings to check everything from the exits to the wiring to the storage of various chemicals.
In St. Petersburg, an ordinance requires inspections every two years. Largo and Tarpon Springs are on a roughly two- to three-year rotation, though their fire marshals say some buildings may go as long as five years without an inspection.
The decade-plus delay in Clearwater seems unusual. The city has long suffered from a substantial backlog, officials said. In 2002, the Fire Department was inspecting buildings once every eight to 10 years. A plan was hatched to cut that time down to two years, but it was never implemented.
At the beginning of Strong's term as fire marshal in 2006, he set up a schedule to inspect all 15,000 properties in just two years. But budget pressures on staffing pushed him off track, he said.
About two-thirds of the buildings have been checked in the past two years, Strong said, and this round of checks is due to wrap up in six months.
Still, Strong is not sure how many buildings out there have gone as long as Aerosonic without an inspection.
The 11-year gap made council members take notice.
"Certainly that's not a timeframe that's acceptable," said council member Paul Gibson. "We need to do better."
"That scares you because it makes you wonder how many other buildings have gone three or four years without an inspection," Vice Mayor George Cretekos said.
City Manager Bill Horne said there was already a backlog in inspections when he took his position in 2000. The problem is the city has a limited number of employees who can work on these buildings.
But how did the city find itself in this position?
"It probably reflects a lack of focus historically within the Fire Department," Horne said. "You don't get a backlog like that overnight."
In the week since the Aerosonic fire, the department has shifted around its inspection schedule to prioritize the area around Aerosonic containing similar businesses.
Strong said he would like to see a fee structure similar to St. Petersburg's, where business pays for the inspectors, but that idea has had no traction.
Lt. Joel Granata of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue said the program was invaluable.
"They are the first line of defense because we're out there to prevent the fire from happening," he said. "We're preserving property and life that way."
Jonathan Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.