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Seeking change, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn goes outside for new fire marshal

Sarasota County Fire Marshal John Reed, 53, will make $118,310 a year as the new fire marshal for the city of Tampa. [City of Tampa]
Sarasota County Fire Marshal John Reed, 53, will make $118,310 a year as the new fire marshal for the city of Tampa. [City of Tampa]
Published Jul. 26, 2017

TAMPA — Sarasota County Fire Marshal John Reed has been hired as Tampa's new fire marshal, and Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he wants Reed to shake up Tampa Fire Rescue's building inspection bureau.

Reed, 53, has been Sarasota County's fire marshal for four years, and before that worked 21 years at the Venice Fire Department, rising to chief. He replaces Charles Owen III, who retired in February after more than 21 years with Tampa Fire Rescue.

Reed will start his new job Monday, at a salary of $118,310 a year.

Tampa usually names its fire marshals from within the ranks. Buckhorn could not recall the last time the city hired from outside for this job, but he said it's necessary.

"That department needs a shake-up, and I think it needs a culture change," Buckhorn said. "I want it to be high-performing — no drama, no politics. … Most of the rank-and-file inspectors are out there doing the best they can. But the fire inspection bureau has always been sort of an outlier in the fire department and has been for decades. I think they have on occasion suffered from a lack of good management and managers."

Last November, a city internal audit concluded the Fire Marshal's Office was late on more than half of its inspections for existing buildings and businesses. Inspectors did perform critically important inspections on time, but missed deadlines — some of them self-imposed — on low-priority structures.

Looking at about 18,000 buildings and individual businesses inside buildings, auditors found about 53 percent were past their scheduled inspection date. A third had not been inspected since 2010. Out of 72 buildings that were either scheduled to be inspected once a year, once every two years or are considered "high hazard," auditors found 39 where inspections had not been done on time.

The delays had arisen before. In 1994 and 1999, Tampa auditors sampled inspection records and found gaps for 60 percent of the buildings checked. In 1999, one-third of the buildings in question had not been inspected for more than 20 years. And back then, a third of 164 high-risk buildings had not been inspected in at least two years.

Buckhorn said he'll tell Reed to focus on clearing out the backlog of inspections and instilling organizational discipline.

"Whatever changes that need to be made they're going to be empowered to do them," Buckhorn said. "Sometimes you need to disrupt things to fix them, and I think bringing fresh eyes and a different perspective can be a good thing for an agency."

Last year, fire officials said they had eight inspectors assigned to check existing buildings.

To that, Buckhorn said he plans to add three retired firefighters who are certified to do building inspections. They will work on a contract basis to help whittle down the list of overdue inspections.

In response to last year's audit, fire officials attributed much of the problem to a data management system purchased about five years earlier. The data transferred into the new system included many out-of-date addresses, duplications, overlaps and other flaws.

Fire officials also said most of the 72 sample buildings in the audit had been closed but not taken out of the database. Officials also said that for most low-hazard businesses, a previous supervisor had scheduled inspections every four years instead of five years as before. Further, some apartment complexes had been assigned an address for each unit instead of a single master address.

Downtown high-rises are inspected every two years, with inspectors checking their corridors, machine rooms, fire alarms, fire pumps, generators and sprinkler systems. Structures given a high priority for inspections include apartment buildings, rooming houses and large places of assembly, where the chance of injury or death is greater in a fire.

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times