'Nuisance' code enforcement helps keep firefighters safe

Through the windows of their fire engines, Lt. Dan Byrne and other firefighters used to look at abandoned cars and overgrown grass and shrubs near some Beaufort homes with a sense of dread.

"We'd leave a house, look at each other and go, 'Man, I hope we never have to put out a fire here,'" Byrne said. "Now, we can do something about it."

It's been nearly six months since city officials put the fire department in charge of identifying "nuisance" code violations and helping city residents address issues such as overgrown grass and shrubs, trash and other health and safety violations.

In that time, Byrne said inspectors have issued more than 70 official complaints related to possible nuisance code violations.

Once notified, residents have 15 days to make the necessary improvements. Failing that, theymay contact the fire department for an extension.If they don't take either of those steps, they will be issued a court summons.

Byrne said inspectors are looking strictly at whether overgrown grass or other obstacles near a home would make a firefighter's job difficult.

"We don't look at it from an (aesthetic) standpoint," he said. "We just look at it from a safety standpoint."

That approach "totally eliminates the subjectivity."

"When we look at a house, we don't worry about whether it looks like nice," he said. "We just want to know that it's safe. This is strictly a safety issue."

Of the complaints issued, more than 30 have been corrected. Forty remain unresolved and involve either extensions or cases where the resident has failed to respond.

No court summons have so far been issued.

Prior to the change, nuisance code enforcement was spread across a number of city departments, with complaints handled by whomever was available, according to city officials.

That system was inefficient and reactive, city comptroller Mack Cook said.

Byrne said having the fire department identify violations has proved to be natural fit.

"As firefighters, we are out in the community and we're keeping an eye out for these kinds of things naturally," Byrne said. "When it comes to making the changes, residents realize that this is about the safety of firefighters, and everyone wants to help keep us safe."