Fire inspector urges continued diligence to prevent fires
Craig Ratz says he believes fire safety and fire prevention go hand in hand.
The Portage Fire Department’s inspector is responsible for conducting routine checks every six months at 1,040 buildings in Portage and its four surrounding towns.
That array of buildings includes major employers such as Portage Plastics, big-box stores like Walmart, popular restaurants including La Tolteca and a host of apartment complexes.
“He’s very much an asset to the department in teaching about fire prevention and keeping people safe in the city,” Portage Fire Chief Clayton Simonson said.
When Ratz inspects a location, he likes to start at the top floor and work his way down, checking wires, breaker boxes, fire exits and safety gear each time. It’s a rewarding job for him.
“It’s what I was made to do. I love it,” said Ratz, who spends about 60 percent of his time at work conducting inspections.
Ratz said he once saved his own mother from a house fire by carrying her out of the residence, an event he said motivated him to redouble his efforts to prevent fires.
“It’s a mistake to think it can’t happen to you. It can,” Ratz said. “It’s not if, it’s when.”
Fires can erupt any number of ways: unattended cigarettes, dripping candles, loose wires. Even cooking gone wrong, which Ratz said is the No. 1 cause of house fires.
“I eat out. Works every time,” Ratz joked.
About 95 percent of fires that departments respond to are preventable, Ratz said.
“Fire prevention is, in my mind, the key,” Ratz said.
Land developer Richard Lynn of Lynn Holdings owns properties that house 30 businesses in Portage, including ALDI, Kmart, Asian Express and La Tolteca. He said Ratz visits one of his properties every week, most recently La Tolteca in December.
Ratz is “a top-notch professional” who has excellent relationships with local business owners, Lynn said.
“Craig Ratz is really dedicated to the work he does,” Lynn said. “I get the feeling the first toys he ever had were fire trucks. When you meet a person like that, it’s outstanding.”
State regulations used to require fire inspections for 100 percent of buildings every six months. About eight years ago, the state reduced that requirement to inspect a majority of buildings, with a routine check of every building at least once each year.
Lynn said he does not object to any fire code regulations, and he shares Ratz’s belief that fire prevention is important.
As fire inspector, Ratz also handles investigations for the Portage Fire Department. He looked into a fire at one of Lynn’s buildings at 2646 New Pinery Road believed to be caused by arson. A fire also damaged the building now occupied by La Tolteca in 2015. No one was injured in either blaze.
Lynn said he appreciates the work fire officials put into keeping people safe.
“We’re aware of what the code is, and he’s the enforcer,” Lynn said. “The more stuff they put in there, the better.”
While some builders might want to construct properties via the most cost-effective means, Ratz favors stricter fire codes. He said more lives are saved by fire prevention than suppression, and he thinks the Portage community overall shares his philosophy.
“All in all, we’re in a good position in our community,” Ratz said.
Roughly 27 years into his career, Ratz’s methods for educating the public about fire safety have changed as new threats have become increasingly common nationwide, such as active shootings at seemingly any possible location.
He leads guest lectures on fire prevention and active shootings at local schools and is slated to instruct a group of Portage High School students about active attack scenarios from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday.
“I never thought in my career that we’d have ballistic vests at the Portage Fire Department,” Ratz said.
And now they do.
No matter the situation, “that training is so important,” Ratz said. “Training is the single most defining factor in determining the effectiveness of a fire department.”
Ratz said the simplest, most effective fire safety issues for people at home are to check smoke detectors, rehearse fire drills with children and clean up potential fire hazards.
Fire prevention week this year will be Oct. 6-12, and Ratz intends to lead a lesson at local schools.