ANNAPOLIS -- State and national fire officials say a fire like the one that killed 25 trapped workers in a North Carolina chicken processing plant last week could happen in Maryland -- or in any state -- as long as fire inspection requirements far outstrip the manpower available to do the job.
"It could happen as we speak," said John H. Coburn, state fire marshal for Missouri and secretary-treasurer of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. "None of the states have enough funding to do the jobs that most of us are mandated to do."
In Maryland, Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele says his office has identified approximately 40,000 properties that require annual fire inspections -- but that his staff is not large enough to conduct more than about 15,000 inspections a year.
As a result, he said, the inspectors have been forced to focus efforts on certain types of properties -- day-care centers, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and schools -- on a priority basis and worry about the rest later. The exception, he said, is that his office investigates immediately any complaint it receives of a fire code violation.
He concedes, however, that with a backlog of about 20,000 to 25,000 properties requiring inspections, some may simply "drop out of the bottom" of the inspection program year after year.
Fire investigators at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., concluded it had never been subjected to a full fire-safety check during its 11 years of operation.
"To me, we have to look at those places where the public assembles, where there are large numbers of people, where safety is at stake, or where business relies on [an inspection for licensure]," Fire Marshal Gabriele said. "Obviously, some industry may fall out of the inspection system."
Robert B. Thomas Jr., Fire Marshal Gabriele's chief deputy for public information, suggested some properties requiring annual inspections in Maryland may not have been visited for "three, four or five years."
But officials at Maryland's office of Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH), a division of the Department of Licensing and Regulation that is responsible for broader safety inspections of industries and businesses, said checking compliance with fire safety codes is part of their job, too.
"In a high hazard industry, like food processing, we feel very comfortable we have inspected most of them on a routine basis," said Craig Lowry, chief of MOSH's Office of Safety Compliance Services. "We have a three-year, random [inspection] cycle. In at least the last three years, those establishments have been inspected."
Not only do MOSH inspectors look for violations such as locked or blocked exits, inadequate fire extinguishers, or a lack of fire evacuation plans, but they are also empowered to issue citations to violators, said Mr. Lowry.
The fire marshal's inspectors may order blocked or locked exits opened immediately or even force them open themselves. But to cite violators, inspectors must go to court; the legislature has refused to give them citation authority, Mr. Thomas said.
Mr. Thomas also said some food processing plants on the Eastern Shore have been required to install sprinkler systems and one, a Chun King plant in Cambridge, even installed a fixed fire extinguishing system above its deep fat fryers to cut down the risk of a serious fire. Chun King officials could not be reached for comment.
The North Carolina fire is believed to have started with the rupture of a hydraulic line powering a conveyor belt that carried chicken through a 26-foot-long fryer. Workers trying to flee dense smoke from the blaze found exits locked or blocked. They died from smoke inhalation.
Mr. Thomas said one main cause of the inspection backlog in Maryland is the sudden proliferation of day-care centers that require fire inspections before they may be licensed by the state.
In fiscal year 1990, 25 such inspections were requested. This year, nearly 5,000 are expected; and by fiscal year 1995, nearly 10,500 are anticipated. That is equivalent to nearly two-thirds of all the inspections expected to be conducted this year.
"We have been fighting on a monthly basis to keep up with the number of inspections in the day-care area and the health care area because they require state licensure, and because of the risk it puts to the very young or the very old should a fire occur," Mr. Thomas said.
Fire Marshal Gabriele said the problem may grow if the high cost of liability insurance forces owners of underground fuel tanks to install them above ground instead. That would add thousands of additional properties to the list of those for which inspections are required.
In 1988, Fire Marshal Gabriele warned the General Assembly that his office needed to add 27 inspectors to its staff of then 31 if it was to be expected to perform the duties required by law.