by Chuck Hoven
The January 7th meeting of the Cleveland Board of Building Standards and Building Appeals featured a case where the opinion of the Building and Housing Department was at odds with the enforcement of municipal code by the Fire Prevention Bureau.
Loren Naji, the owner of a building at 2138 W. 25th Street, appealed a notice of a violation of the municipal code 391.02. After an inspection of the building, Cleveland Fire Marshall Captain Michael Dziak sent a letter to Naji dated October 14, 2014 notifying him that “Multiple room occupancy of A1, A2 and A3 assembly require a fire alarm system. Municipal Code 391.02 outlines the requirements necessary for an A1, A2 and A3 occupancy. You shall install an approved fire alarm system at your building.”
Naji was given 30 days to either comply or file an appeal with the Cleveland Board of Building Standards and Building Appeals.
Naji decided to file an appeal. In his appeal Naji contended that if the space were one large space with an egress rather than three separate rooms, he would not need a fire alarm system. His appeal suggests that he be allowed to consider each room separately because they each have a separate egress. He reasons that as separate spaces – each on their own – they would not need a fire alarm system. The appeal then says “three separate rooms would be redundant since all three would be occupied in any case. Therefore the Appellant is appealing the need for the alarm system for this space, stating that the building has been brought up to fire and building code requirements in every other respect.”
Thomas Vanover, newly appointed Chief Building Official for the City of Cleveland Department of Building and Housing was in support of the proposal to grant the appeal and allow Naji to forego installing the fire alarm system. Vanover argued that if Naji were to get the three separate occupancy permits he would be allowed to have 150 people in the space with no alarm system. He said if granted the variance the limit for the space would be only 99 people.
Cleveland Fire Prevention Bureau Chief Lieutenant Douglas Veselsky didn’t buy this argument. He was overheard asking the city’s lawyer present at the hearing why the city would take such a risk. He asked Vanover and the lawyer if they would need to have a dead fire fighter for the fire code to be taken seriously.
Veselsky said the reason for the signaling system is that the building is not being used as three separate spaces. The cease use order was for overcrowding when Naji was using three spaces for the same event. He told Naji that he needs to comply with the law install a signaling alarm system and keep the occupancy under 99 people.
Veselsky says the proposal for three separate spaces would not work unless Naji never used all three rooms at once. He would need a fire alarm system if using more than one room at the same time, otherwise the fire prevention bureau would have to shut it down. Also he noted the owner had never applied for a commercial signal system for the building. He said simple Home Depot smoke alarms would not be sufficient for a commercial building.
Community member Henry Senyak submitted photos from Naji’s Facebook pages as evidence to the Board as to the overcrowding at events at the facility in from 2011 through 2014. Senyak noted bands playing, dimmed lights, alcohol and a closed flammable drapes covering exits. He called dimmed lights and alcohol “a recipe for disaster.” He also submitted a document from a fire inspection that called on Naji to obtain a hazardous materials permit for propane and flammables stored on the site.
Veselsky asked Naji what had happened since he had agreed last November to get an alarm system as a condition of his occupancy permit. He asked Naji if he had obtained estimates for the cost of a fire alarm system. Naji stated the estimates were from $5,000 to $12,000.
Board of Building Standards and Building Appeals Chair Joseph Denk advised Naji to purchase and install a fire alarm system saying “You’ll thank us later.”
In ruling on the appeal, the Board of Building Standards and Building Appeals said since the applicant had not applied for three separate occupancy permits the applicant was appropriately cited for not having the required fire alarm system in a multiple room facility. The board upheld the citation with Denk noting “I don’t know if you can vary “Shall” – the language of the city ordinance.
At the end of the meeting, Naji indicated he still wanted to avoid putting in the fire alarm system by pursuing a proposal to try for three separate occupancy permits. Despite Veselsky’s warning that he would have to shut down events in a multiple room facility with no alarms, Thomas Vanover, newly appointed Chief Building Official for the City of Cleveland Department of Building and Housing seemed to be encouraging Naji, asking him to meet with him for assistance.
Following the meeting, Ted Thelander, a retired designer and planner for the food service industry, wondered where Naji was getting advice. Thelander said Naji’s advisers should be telling him to bend over backwards to comply with the municipal code. For him to get this far without the proper fire alarm system in place he should fire both his legal advisor and designer, said Thelander.