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Boston fire overhauls smoke detector inspections to ease backlog

Seeking to erase a backlog that has slowed the city's real estate industry, the Boston Fire Department is overhauling smoke detector inspections in residential properties by no longer examining properties built after 1975 that contain six or more units.

Boston Deputy Fire Chief Bart J. Shea said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he has examined state laws and the building code and has found that fire inspectors never had the authority to conduct smoke detector inspections in newer buildings, but apparently did so at the request of mortgage companies.

Beginning Aug. 1, the ­inspections in that category of residential buildings will cease, allowing fire inspectors to focus attention on single-family homes, two-family homes, and multiunit buildings with five or fewer units built before 1975. Officials said the inspection backlog was averaging three weeks.

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"We are not required to do anything beyond 1975 for smoke detectors,'' Shea said. "Alarm systems should have been installed under the building code or the electrical code. . . . We would be enforcing the building code. We can't do that.''

Shea said the department will continue, as it is required to do under state law, to inspect all residential properties for carbon monoxide detectors. He said those inspections are faster, require far less technical exper­tise, and are not expected to hamper the retooled smoke detector inspection effort.

Shea said that if lenders involved in the sale of post-1975 buildings want a smoke detector inspection done, they can hire a private company to perform that task.

The date stems from a major overhaul of the state building code in 1975 that requires the installation of sophisticated smoke detector systems inside residential buildings with six or more units.

Shea said property owners have always been required to check their systems at least once a year to make sure they are functioning properly. He likened the situation to that of a plumber who is hired to install equipment, but is never ­required to keep returning to verify it still works properly.

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Gregory Vasil, chief executive officer for the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, applauded the department for its willingness to listen to the concerns of his industry and to craft a plan that accelerates the inspection process without impairing public safety.

"I think this is a very logical fix,'' Vasil said.

Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser said the city has the lowest rate of fire fatalities in the nation, and no regulatory change will be undertaken if it could endanger the public.

"We pride ourselves on ­being very aggressive in the fire prevention area because we want to keep the people here safe,'' Fraser said.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.