The Bozeman Fire Department is rolling out a program aimed at keeping renters safe.

The Voluntary Rental Unit Safety Inspection Initiative will provide the public with a list of properties that have been inspected for health and safety standards. The inspections are free and will be conducted by the Bozeman Fire Department.

“The sole goal from the Bozeman Fire Department's perspective is to improve safety in our rental housing stock in the community,” Bozeman Fire Chief Jason Shrauger said.

Renters, landlords, property owners, property managers and others can call the fire department and ask to have a rental unit inspected to determine if it is safe. After a unit passes inspection, it will receive a three-year certification and be added to a city website where potential renters can view a list of properties that have been deemed safe.

As renting becomes more and more competitive, Bozeman's fire chief has seen an increased need for this program.

“That's part of why we're dealing with the issue, because people can rent anything now,” Shrauger said. “In our community, rental spaces are hard to come by, so pretty much anything that can be rented is and as a result you have spaces being rented that maybe shouldn't be.

“Over the years, we've just noticed a trend in rental units that some are very good and some are less so. So that, coupled with we've had a couple fires in our community where we've lost members of our community, it kind of brought up a need to look for a better solution,” he added.

When a rental survey was done a year or two ago, the vacancy rate was 4 percent, Bozeman City Commissioner Chris Mehl said. Now, he expects it's even lower.

“Safety has to be a top priority. The university is growing, the community is growing and we all know that housing is at a premium,” Mehl said.

Mehl has been working with the fire department to get the program off the ground.

“It just seemed like the timing was right as we came out of the recession to give this a push,” he said.

The service isn't new. It's one the fire department has offered for years, but it has never been advertised.

In the past, the fire department would receive a few calls each year, typically from concerned tenants who had questions about their rentals. The fire marshal would then inspect the property.

A common violation the fire department sees on a regular basis is missing or non-working smoke detectors. Another is lack of proper windows or a second way out of a unit.

“We want you to have two ways out. That's the most important thing,” Shrauger said.

Shrauger said a basement apartment should have a window big enough to fit a firefighter.

“I say it's about getting a fire guy through, because if we can get through it, so can the tenant,” he said.

But sometimes firefighters encounter windows that only open a few inches at most.

“There's no getting a cat through that window,” he said.

In the worst case, Shrauger has seen at least one fire where a person died because there was not a proper second exit and fire was blocking the main exit.

“They didn't have a second way out and that's what would have saved them. The second thing was they didn't have working smoke detectors,” he said.

The program benefits both renters and property owners, according to the fire department.

Tenants will know if their rentals are safe and will have a resource when looking for housing. Property owners will find out if their rental units meet the minimum safety standards in building and safety codes.

“I think it promotes safety and awareness, and I think everybody can benefit from those things,” said Chelsea Schmidt, Montana State University assistant director of business and community relations.

MSU is working with the fire department to spread the word.

The MSU/Bozeman Good Neighbor Committee will be distributing “good neighbor bags” on Saturday to homes near the Museum of the Rockies. Information about the rental safety initiative will be included in those bags, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the program's launch coincides with the end of the semester when this year's freshmen will be thinking about moving into off-campus rentals next year. The safety initiative will also be talked about during upcoming off-campus living seminars.

“If I finish out my career at Bozeman fire without another fatality, then I've done my job,” Shrauger said.

Erin Schattauer can be reached at 582-2628 or eschattauer@dailychronicle.com. She's on Twitter at @erinschattauer.

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