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  1. #1
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    Default Called the Fire Department Today

    I inspected a 1920's home this morning. In the crawl space was a 250 gallon liquid fuel tank. On the floor of the crawlspace was a puddle about 10 feet in diameter of fuel oil and rain water. In the puddle someone had scattered wheat straw, presumably to soak up the fuel. In the center of the fuel oil soaked straw, was a natural gas furnace. The straw was in direct contact with the furnace. The building tenant had the furance on and was heating the house.

    When I opened the crawlspace, I could smell fuel oil. I could see a large black stain-puddle covering large portions of the crawlspace floor. I could see liquid flowing from the raised back corner of the crawlspace where the tank sat towards the puddle with the gas furnace in the middle, surrounded by fuel soaked straw.

    I had not put on my shoe covers and was not terribly keen on wandering around in the crawlspace. Against my better judgement, I did anyway and took some photos. I left the house shortly there after and headed home to write my report. I had lunch and got the bulk of the report written. About mid afternoon, it dawned on me that the tenants were at grave risk. I called my buyer and asked that he immediatly contact the seller and explain the dangerous situation. I requested he have the seller contact the tenants. He said he would.

    My family came home and we had our evening meal. I told them about the inspection this morning. I worked on the report some more because a 1920's home that has been rental property in a low income neighborhood has more than its share of items to describe.

    Around 10pm, I got scared thinking about the leaking fuel and called 911. They took my name and phone number, twice. I explained that I had inspected a home this morning and felt there was a dangerous condition. The operator agreed and explained a fire truck had been dispatched. She explained that they would call back if they needed more information. A few minutes went by and the phone rang. It was 911. They asked if I had made a call. I answered Yes. They said the fire officer on scene explained the tenant had not called the fire department. I agreed and explained that I had called because of the dangerous situation in the crawl space. I described the situation in the crawl space again. The operator thanked me and hung up.

    The buyer is an agent. He calls me about every 6 weeks to inspect a home. Usually they are 1200-1500 sq ft homes that are or have been rentals being sold from one investor to another. He is buying this property. I sent him email explaining that I called the fire department. I am supposed to perform another inspection for him on Monday.

    I feel I did the right thing for the tenants. I am not sure they are going to be happy about the fire department showing up at 10pm on a rainy night. If anything, they probably would have preferred I called earler but at least I called.

    Anyone else ever called the fire department or electrician based on findings in a home? How did the agents take it? How did your client react?

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    Last edited by Bruce Ramsey; 10-28-2007 at 07:12 PM. Reason: correct spelling
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  2. #2
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    I would not have called 911, especially at 10 PM. I probably would have left a note for the tenants letting them know about the situation. I think notifying the seller (through the buyer) should fulfill your obligation.

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  3. #3
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Second guessing is difficult.

    I do not know about NC, but a number of years ago, An L.A. fire official that I was talking to (after I put in a call to the fire department) that an individual with knowledge of a fire risk could be held responsible for any injury or death resulting from a fire. While you are probably correct, it would have been better to call earlier, I believe that you made the correct decision.

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  4. #4
    Richard Moore's Avatar
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    "I think notifying the seller (through the buyer) should fulfill your obligation."

    In a perfect world, the buyer would immediately notify the seller, the seller/landlord in grave fear for his tenants safety would rush down to the house, evacuate the tenants and pay for their accomodation elsewhere while the fire hazard and contaminated earth was removed.

    But...as we all know, it just ain't perfect out there. The buyer probably spent time figuring out how he could work this to his financial advantage before calling (if he did).

    The slumlord (sorry...landlord) fearing for his profit would rather see the place go up in flames for the insurance. At most he will have the gas shut-off. Screw the fumes!

    I don't think Bruce R. was fullfilling any "obligation". Rather, he was genuinely concerned about the safety of strangers and obviously worried about it all day. He decided that the threat to human life was more important than the possiblity of upsetting a business relationship. How can you argue with that?

    Earlier would have been better, but I can understand the hesitation. The only thing I might have done differently would be to call the fire department/station directly on a non-emergency line and thoroughly explain the situation to them.

    Overall, Bruce did the right thing, and that counts for a lot!

    Last edited by Richard Moore; 10-27-2007 at 10:58 PM.

  5. #5
    Richard Rushing's Avatar
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    I agree with calling the Fire Dept. on the non-emergency line and explaining the situation that way.

    I would have looked up the land-lords' name and number on the internet and gave them a call to let them know that I was morally obligated to notify the Fire Dept. to let them know of my findings also.

    rr


  6. #6
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Update:
    The buyer did contact the seller. The buyer is not upset and I am still performing the scheduled inspection for him this week. He asked me if I knew any hazmat cleanup contacts.

    My liability as a home inspector was not the reason I called the fire department. I felt that contacting the buyer and requesting he contact the seller probably met my legal obligation. The buyer also happened to sell this same property 3 years ago to the current owner and probably has more than a buyer/seller relationship. I felt a personal obligation to ensure the tenants would not come to further harm by getting professional help on the scene.

    I was a volunteer firefighter. I was a state certifed Hazardous Materials Operations level responder. That means I would put on the blue suit, SCBA tanks, face mask and go into the hot zone. So when I looked at the tinder (wheat straw) soaked in fuel source (fuel oil) in direct contact with an ignition source (running furnace), I was looking at the scene not just as a home inspector, but also as a hazmat tech and firefighter.

    I know the fire department is bored most of the time sitting around the station and are hoping for a chance to go on a call. Been there, done that. I have no regrets for bothering them. I regret bothering the tenants late at night and wish I had made the call earlier in the day. Next time, I plan to respond quicker to hazards.

    Thanks to all of you who commented on my actions.

    I still am curious if anyone else has found extreme hazards or immediately deadly hazards, like service panels with no covers, leaking gas lines, etc. What actions did you take and how was it recieved by all parties in the house transaction.

    Last edited by Bruce Ramsey; 10-28-2007 at 07:11 PM. Reason: correct spelling
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  7. #7
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Well, if you want to justify it to yourself, you could always take the Jerry Peck approach: "I'm sure your decision not to bother them until the morning was a great comfort to the survivors."


  8. #8
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Bruce,

    I read your post last night. Today, which I never work on a Sunday, I did have to run out and check a home I'm doing phase inspections on.

    As soon as I come around the corner to the home, out front was an ambulance and a fire truck. I didn't even have to make the call as you did.

    Actually, what happened was the guy who was installing the temporary safety hand railings on the stairs tripped and fell down the stairs.

    No serious injuries.

    rick

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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Bruce,

    Did you ever find out what the fire fighters said needed to be done, and what they did at the scene (like shutting the furnace down, turning all the valves off and telling the tenants to leave for the night)?

    Jerry Peck, Construction / Litigation Consultant
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    Exclamation Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    I have had two similar situations, both of which involved natural gas. One was a vacant house where the utilities had been shut off, and then turned on for the inspection. The utility failed to discover the 0.5 inch supply pipe emptying into the second floor unit. I telephoned the utility, and the gas was shut off until the leak could be corrected. Mean while, I opened every window and door that would open. Everyone involved appreciated the quick and appropriate response.

    The second scenario involved an occupied dwelling. After discovering several significant natural gas leaks, I telephoned the utility. Then I telephoned the listing agent, and explained the situation, and that the gas company was on the way. The seller / landlord showed almost immediately, and put a crew on the job. The utility shut the gas off at the meter, pending completion of the repairs. Again, all involved, including the tenants, appreciated what had been done.

    Based on your photos and information, all three elements of the fire triangle were present: fuel, oxygen, and heat. That constitutes an immediate life safety risk to the tenants, and you are correct to take immediate action. You would not stand by while a 2-year-old stood in the roadway while a bus approached, correct? The only thing I would have done differently would be to act immediately.

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  11. #11
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Quote Originally Posted by Bruce Ramsey View Post
    I still am curious if anyone else has found extreme hazards or immediately deadly hazards, like service panels with no covers, leaking gas lines, etc. What actions did you take and how was it recieved by all parties in the house transaction.
    The only incident I've had was finding a leaking supply line on a water heater in the attic of a occupied home.

    I left the seller a note and a message to the agent of what I had done. At 5:30, I get a call from the agent stating the seller camed home and couldn't cook dinner because the water was off.

    I asked her if she had listened to my voice mail, and she said yeah but I needed to get back over there and turn the water back on ASAP.

    I told her it was not going to happen and that they needed a plumber first and then they could head to the the MC Donalds for dinner.

    Needless to say, they called a plumber and he said I had done them a big favor in doing what I had done. Did they call and tell me so, NO. The plumber called and told me.

    Rick


  12. #12
    Rob Thomas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    In similar circumstances, I have called the listing agent immediately using my mobile phone; left a note (that I photographed) on the kitchen counter for the occupants; and followed-up with an e-mail to the listing agent, and copied to the selling agent.

    RT



    Quote Originally Posted by Bruce Ramsey View Post

    I feel I did the right thing for the tenants. I am not sure they are going to be happy about the fire department showing up at 10pm on a rainy night. If anything, they probably would have preferred I called earler but at least I called.

    Anyone else ever called the fire department or electrician based on findings in a home? How did the agents take it? How did your client react?



  13. #13
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    "Did you ever find out what the fire fighters said needed to be done, and what they did at the scene (like shutting the furnace down, turning all the valves off and telling the tenants to leave for the night)?"

    I got a partial update. The fire department indicated the two copper pipes from the oil tank had been hacked off when the old oil burner had been removed. The pipes pointed at the ground. Had they been turned up, the leak may not have occurred. Did not hear what they actually did at the scene.

    The tenants were scheduled to move out by the end of the month (Wed, Oct 31) and this occurred on Friday Oct 26. They tenants spent the night and were still in the property on Monday 29. They are Section 8, meaning subsidized housing and probably have insufficent funds to find alternate housing for a week.

    The seller will have to have authorized haz mat removal to clean the crawl space. I will get further updates next time I talk to the buyer.

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  14. #14
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    I came across this beauty one day. A gas water heater with no exhaust flue anywhere to be found. I felt it was necessary to tell the homeowner about it. There response was the typical "It hasn't been a problem yet." I told her it was the "yet" I was worried about. I didn't feel right about leaving the property without telling someone about the hazard. I did mention to them about the valve on the t/p valve too.

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  15. #15
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Scott,

    When I was around ten my two younger brothers, myself, and my mother almost died at my families summer cottage as a result of a faulty space heater - my mother who was the last one fully conscious woke up with a throbbing headache and realized that was happening at about the last minute she probably could have (she was in a bedroom with a tightly closed door and a partially opened window, the rest of us were in a separate area of the house near the heater).

    If she had not realized it when she did, my father would likely have driven up to join us the next weekend and found his entire family dead (no phone there back then).

    As it was, I realized years later reading about the after-effects of acute CO poisoning that my youngest brother likely experienced significant and irreversible neurological damage as a result of this incident.

    So I have had zero problem dialing the cell phone on the occasions when I have discovered disconnected vents.

    The seller can sue me afterwards, if they wish.


  16. #16
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Michael
    Sounds as though we have the same younger brother
    Glad all of you survived.

    ' correct a wise man and you gain a friend... correct a fool and he'll bloody your nose'.

  17. #17
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    Naive 75 year old widow in a small home with a water heater in the hall closet that had a busted flue (disconnected, came apart, whatever, it wasn't discharging outside the house.) Smelled it when I walked in.

    I explained the hazard, then asked her if she wanted to call a plumber immediately or if I should shut off the gas until it was fixed.

    Plumber showed up about 30 minutes later and fixed it.

    She didn't have a clue why she felt sick for the last few months but when I saw her at the grocery store a couple of weeks later, she was feeling a lot better.

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  18. #18
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    One lived in home I called the listing agent immediately because of a gas leak, another for a flue detached on both the furnace and water heater.

    I showed a seller once of a water heater flue being detached and from what I understand the last person to touch or open that WH closet for anything was a plumber 2 months earlier. The family had been complaining of headaches for about that time with trips to the doctors office. I never did follow up on that but I am sure they must have gone back to that plumber for the route cause of the headaches and doctors expenses. No carbon monoxide detector in the home either.

    Rick.

    I take it the guy falling down the stairs was pretty messed up.

    Ted Menelly, Castle Home Inspection Services
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  19. #19
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    You did the correct thing. good call.


    Best

    Ron


  20. #20
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    Default Re: Called the Fire Department Today

    As far as I'm concerned you made the right call. It's good that business will continue with the agent but that is secondary to the life safety concerns you brought attention to.
    I've called gas and electric utilities numerous times for immediate shut-offs for D&H conditions uncovered. Haven't had to call Fire yet though. I always inform the agents/buyers present of the situation, tell the agent they can call Seller right now to get someone out ASAP to deal with the situation, etc., and that if someone 'responsible' doesn't show up by the time I'm done, I'm calling the Utility company.
    Agents/Sellers are always pissed. Once they get over the initial shock, most (not all) have been grateful. I've had a couple threaten to sue. I've told them essentially 'That's great, I'm sure the Judge will love these pictures', along with the report from the utility.

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