Zephyrhills Fire Chief Verne Riggall said this week that the April 17 fire at the Dean Johnson Music warehouse may have been extinguished earlier if a fire inspection had corrected problems with storage issues in the building.
Firefighters could not enter the building to battle the fire because it was too heavily loaded with storage items, according to the fire department. About 30 firefighters took two hours to extinguish the blaze.
They had to wait for the fire to break through the roof, where it could be doused from above. A damage estimate for the building and its contents has not been released.
“The amount of storage is something that should have been caught on a fire inspection,” said Zephyrhills fire Lt. Kerry Barnett, who was the commander at the scene. “The bottom line is that if there had been someone doing regular inspections, the storage would not be at the point it was today,” he said. “We did what we could do.”
Dean Johnson Music's office manager, Candy Lawrence, said the studio had passed its last inspection “with flying colors,” having to correct some code violations.
Records show that the last inspection was conducted in 2010 by Barnett when he was employed as the city's fire marshal.
Barnett was fired in February of 2012 by then-fire chief Keith Williams for violating a city policy by working at a second job while he was on sick leave from the city. Shortly after Barnett's firing, the fire marshal position was eliminated due to budget constraints.
As a result, Williams was required to do the fire inspections. Barnett was later rehired in March 2012 after being demoted to lieutenant. Williams continued to do the fire inspections after that.
Barnett's inspection in 2010 noted that storage should be limited in the instruction room of the building and the entrance should be kept clear. Riggall said that those two issues contributed to the fire.
“Should we have been back in there?” Riggall asked. “Obviously we should have, but when one man is [inspecting] 1,400 or 1,500 businesses; it can't be done.”
“There are many, many, many businesses out there and one man, one fire chief, one fire marshal cannot keep up with it,” Riggall said. “From what I've seen and the records I've reviewed, Chief Williams was doing as many as he could.”
Riggall said he has been keeping up with new business inspections, but yearly inspections have not been done because of manpower issues. He is changing that, but not with a fire marshal position.
“There will not be a fire marshal in the budget,” Riggall said. “The fire marshal responsibilities are my responsibilities per the state of Florida.”
He said fire inspections can be accomplished by a group of certified inspectors at the department.
“That's what we're currently doing,” the chief said. “On our staff at the fire department we have five certified inspectors, including Lt. Barnett, and we're currently using those in the current pre-fire plan safety inspection program that the six of us put together as a group. We're using that to get into all the businesses again.”
Riggall said the program is specifically designed so the firefighters will know what is inside a building if a fire starts. “As they are doing the safety inspection/pre plan any violations are noted and brought to my attention and I go out and visit the building,” he said.
It's a plan that Riggall believes would have saved the warehouse. He said the owner of the warehouse “was definitely in violation of the storage rule 100 percent.”
Riggall said he does not believe that Dean Johnson, the warehouse's owner, was purposely in violation.
“He's a businessman trying to make a living and he needed those things to make his business work. Could he have done it differently — absolutely.”