Responding to Public Comments/Requests – Fire Inspection at Texas Strong Gym

INFORMATION RELEASE
THURSDAY, JUNE 30, 2022
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
EVENT #22-15088

In response to concerns expressed by private citizens on publicly shared Facebook posts and requests for information from the City, this release is being shared openly with all in the interest of transparency and accountability. 

The Aransas Pass Public Safety division continues to work on the matter of an onsite fire inspection at the Texas Strong Fitness gym in Aransas Pass. Biennial onsite inspections are performed regularly. The inspection aims to identify fire/safety/health violations and work with business stakeholders to remediate those issues. So, how does an inspection work?

Most of the time, fire inspectors are invited in and inspect with the owner or management. In the end, a vast majority of the inspections reveal existing but often minor violations; and by working together, the business can remedy those infractions with ease. However, on fewer occasions, some inspections might result in tickets being issued. And, even more rare, an administrative search warrant may be sought when the owner or management refuses the inspection, as was the case here. Because it’s rare to obtain an administrative warrant for a fire inspection, the fire chief solicited the help of APPD code enforcement which regularly utilizes the process. So, onto this matter – what’s the history here with Texas Strong?

Police Dept. & Code Enforcement History

Fire Dept. History

  • 03/20/2019 – Mr. Followell and Texas Strong had a Certificate of Occupancy inspection to open up for business. The inspection was completed by the City Fire Marshal.  
  • 03/25/2022 – The fire department completed the biennial fire inspection, violations were noted, and the location was set for a follow-up compliance inspection. This was when the situation began to devolve.
  • 04/07/2022 – The compliance follow-up inspection was attempted but not completed. Mr. Followell escalated his complaint about the matter to the fire captain’s supervisor, and the Fire Marshal tried to visit with Mr. Followell onsite until being made to leave.  
  • 6/29/2022 – City staff obtained an administrative search warrant to enter the premises and complete the inspection process. It was agreed that this event would be a fresh start for this biennial inspection, meaning we would first point out the violations to Mr. Followell and offer him a reasonable period to remedy the infractions before resulting in the issuance of citations. (More details from this day’s event to be shared below.)

Here is some history of the City’s fire code. On 08/05/2019 and by ordinance no. 2019-4251, the City of Aransas Pass adopted the International Fire Code, 2018 Edition. This code serves as the operative authority by which the Fire Chief/Fire Marshal inspects businesses.    

Now, on Wednesday, 6/29/2022, an administrative warrant was in hand. Police Chief Eric Blanchard, Fire Chief Nathan Kelley, and Code Enforcement Officer Cory Elrod arrived at Texas Strong to carry out the administrative search warrant once after Chief Blanchard first spoke with Mr. Followell by phone. (CAUTION EXPLICIT LANGUAGE)

Phone Recordings

Because the inspection team had assembled based on Followell’s initial agreement to meet, we proceeded to the location for inspection. The affidavit outlines why inspectors sought and felt like a warrant to search and inspect should be issued by the court. It’s important to note Texas law regarding administrative search warrants. They aren’t typical search warrants often obtained by law enforcement during a criminal investigation. Remember, compliance, cooperation, and public safety are key here, not penalizing business stakeholders.  

Affidavit & Warrant

One can read more about what is required when obtaining an administrative search warrant under section 18.05 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Chief Blanchard visited with Mr. Followell and explained the purpose of the warrant and how things would occur. Below are the body camera videos from the encounter. These videos have redactions that are only intended to blur out patrons inside the establishment. Typically, this footage, taken inside a private location, would not be shared. However, in situations where the interest of transparency and accountability are essential, the police department will favor the side of public interest and scrutiny over that of withholding such information or seeking an Attorney General’s Opinion, such as in the case of an open records request. (CAUTION EXPLICIT LANGUAGE)

Lastly, FD Chief Kelley drafted an inspection report of his findings. The goal, again, is to seek cooperative compliance. Where compliance cannot be achieved, escalated enforcement will ensue in the form of a citation or a complaint filed in municipal court. At this time, we await at least 10-days before continuing, completing this investigation through a compliance inspection. Once compliance is achieved, the case will be closed. In the absence of compliance, enforcement must escalate.    

Here is a summary of this report. The final report was not complete at the time of this release:

  1. Improper Electric Locking Door – [BE]1010.1.9 Door operations, [BE]1010.1.9.9 Sensor release of electrically locked egress doors.
  2. Blocked Emergency Egress – 1031.3 Obstructions (Sandbags blocking an egress door adding resistance to opening the door.)
  3. Interior Flammable Finish – 803.4 Fire-retardant coatings (Ceiling foam insulation shows no evidence of being treated with a fire retardant.)
  4. Open Junction Boxes – 604.6 Unapproved conditions (Several electrical junction boxes found open or not properly installed.)
  5. Outside Electrical Panels Not Properly Labeled – 604.3.1 Labeling (The structure is home to different businesses and electrical services for each. Each needs to be identifiable to the appropriate business.)
  6. Storage within 36″ of the Electrical Panel – 604.3 Working space and clearance.
  7. Knox Box – 506.1 Where required (A Knox box is missing from the establishment and was required as a part of the business’s C of O.)
  8. Improper Addressing – 505.1 Address identification (When unclear which door leads into which building or suite, the door must be addressed.)
  9. Junction Box not Properly Attached – 604.7 Equipment and fixtures. (Electrical junction boxes found hanging and not affixed to the structure.)

Again, these findings are minor and often corrected with very little cost, time, and effort. None of the violations listed above are out of the ordinary for what an inspection may find. Our goal is to achieve compliance and maintain public safety for the establishment and its patrons.

As a reminder, the purpose of this release is to respond openly to concerns expressed publicly about the City’s approach and actions involving Mr. Followell’s business, Texas Strong Gym. There remains an overwhelming interest that this information is shared openly, which this release does.  

It remains our mission and hope that we sustain a positive and fruitful working relationship with our community and business stakeholders. Public safety for all is at the core of our efforts, and we will continue to work toward that end.

– Chief Eric Blanchard, Public Safety Director

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