Monday, Nov. 13 meeting

Rockland takes closer look at steep-stair laws as homeowners carve apartments in old homes

Posted:  Friday, November 10, 2017 - 9:15am

ROCKLAND – Following public outcry to Rockland’s steep-stairs regulation, the city’s building and life safety code enforcers are requesting that the Council direct them to refine aspects of the ordinance Chapter 4, Section 4-505 Rental Units; Existing Stairs.

In a city with an older population and even older housing stock, holding the width of steps on primary sources of egress to no less than the exact measurement stated in the federally-crafted and state-enforced code has left numerous local landlords guilty of noncompliance.

“It’s not fun to be in the position where you start costing people a lot of money,” Assistant Fire Chief Adam Miceli said.

The state continues to enforce the measurement, although some state fire marshals deliberately leave their tape measures behind, according to Code Enforcement Officer John Root during the Monday, Nov. 6 agenda-setting meeting. For them, personally walking the stairs is enough to determine the level of safety.

Root and the Rockland Fire Department are asking council to rephrase the city ordinance to say ‘don’t do this’ [measure to the tenth of an inch].

“We’re agents of the city. We work for them,” Miceli said. “So it’s their decision whether we do it or not. If it’s left up to the fire department, then we feel that we need to stick to our safety code.”

Fire Chief Chris Whytock held that Life Safety Code to a high level during the agenda-setting meeting.

“Every code is written in blood,” he said. “Something led that standard to be in effect and to be held to that standard. But obviously, we’re here to do what’s the will of the council, and that’s what we’ll do.”

According to Miceli, some owners of large old houses are realizing how spacious their structures are. They then convert rear servants’ quarters and attic rooms into apartments or AirBnB lodging. But service stairwells are notably steep, narrow, and have low ceilings. Miceli said Rockland responders recently experienced another example of the difficulties of carrying the sick or injured down such stairs, carrying stretchers or backboards, with no headroom and limited foot hold.

Then there’s the risk of fire.

The human body, descending stairs in a hurry, lands farther forward on each step, according to Miceli. The shoes hit the treaded edge only, leaving the person precarious to missing a step or falling outright. On top of that, some staircases are painted with a slippery polish, creating a greater risk for those people fleeing in socks.

“The fact is, we never got into these buildings often enough to get these things corrected early enough,” he said. “They’ve existed for a long time and nobody got hurt. But they’ve also not had fires.”

“There are some sets of stairs that absolutely should not be allowed to be the egress stairs,” he said. “And then there are others that are really close.”

For those that fall ‘really close,’ Miceli, Whytock, Root, City Council member Valli Geiger, former City Manager Audra Caler-Bell, and one of the city attorneys have sought alternative solutions.

According to Miceli, it is the code enforcers’ intent to advise people of their problematic stairs, and to the fact that the state may still enforce its own strict regulations. But local suggestions for easing some of the risks come in the form of alarm systems, two hand rails instead of one, or doors at the top and bottom that would keep the smoke out of that space.

Or, for those staircases that truly require reconstruction, at least setting a deadline that isn’t during the winter.

The group has considered creating its own, more lenient measurement to follow. However, having no meaning behind the measurement left it seeming arbitrary.

At the same time, so does leaving total judgement to local enforcers, which is why the city will continue to be pressed to take ownership at its Monday, Nov 13 regular meeting: Ordinances in Final Reading; Public Hearing:  #23 Chapter 4, Section 4-505 Rental Units; Existing Stairs, Sponsor, Councilor Geiger.

“You give us the tools that you want us to use,” Miceli said. “And that’s what we’ll use. We don’t want it to be left up to us to use our judgement. Because in our judgement, the Life Safety Code is a solid, established code.”  


Sarah Thompson can be reached at