Fire marshal suspended over inspection mistakes

Covering breaking news means never knowing what my work day will look like, and covering a variety of topics on a tight deadline. It’s one of the things I love about my work.

Unfortunately, the hectic schedule also means a lack of follow-through for some of the stories that I break as a crime and safety reporter. Doing so means using spare minutes and hours between breaking news to contact sources and check documents to follow-up on topics that should be followed up.

It’s a tight schedule, but completely workable.

When I first broke the story that the Orange County Fire Authority skipped about half of the hazardous material inspections it is responsible for, I knew it was a topic that would not be complete after one story. It is important to understand the internal tows inside the agency as it tried to find out what happened.

And although personnel issues inside the agency are difficult to cover in any public agency (particularly in California), I was able to find out one of the disciplinary actions that were taken inside the agency as it conducted an internal investigation.

Fire marshal punished after probe

One-week suspension comes after audit confirms hundreds of businesses were billed for inspections that never happened.

Published Feb. 21, 2013

By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ
The Orange County Register

The county’s fire marshal was suspended from her post, just as officials completed an audit of an inspection program that charged hundreds of Orange County businesses for hazardous material inspections that were not done.

The weeklong suspension is the first, and only, known disciplinary action taken since Orange County Fire Authority officials found that more than 1,400 businesses were charged for hazardous material inspections in 2011-12, even though the inspections were never completed.

Fire Marshal Laura Blaul sent out an email to fire authority staff apologizing for the “embarrassment” caused to the department, after the Orange County Register reported on the errors in September, according to the email, which was obtained by the Register.

“I am the Fire Marshal and I take full responsibility,” the email reads. “This issue has caused embarrassment to our agency, pain to our members, confusion and ill will, and I apologize to all of you.”

The email was sent out to OCFA staff Feb. 14, the first day of the one-week suspension.

Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said he could not comment on specific disciplinary actions against department personnel.

But the email sent out by Blaul, and obtained through a public records request, confirms the suspension was directly linked to the agency’s handling of its hazmat inspection program, where businesses were charged about $360,000 for inspections that didn’t happen.

“It has been a rough year and I am writing this from home, on my first day of a one-week suspension,” the email read.

As the department’s fire marshal, Blaul oversees OCFA’s Hazardous Material Disclosure Program, which is tasked with inspecting companies that are required by state law to disclose certain hazardous materials.

In the meantime, fire prevention personnel have continued to conduct hazardous material inspections on all of the 3,000 businesses that were supposed to be inspected, Concepcion said.

Those are expected to be completed in April.

Last year, OCFA personnel discovered several faults in the program, including that hundreds of fees were collected to cover the cost of inspections, yet nearly half of the inspections slated for the 2011-12 year were not done.

OCFA launched an internal audit of the program, looking to see if any other mistakes were spotted in more than 3,000 hazardous material inspections.

That audit has just been completed, but the results have not yet been published or made available to OCFA Chief Keith Richter, Concepcion said.

Contact the writer: shernandez@ocregister.com or 714-704-3788

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