EXCLUSIVE: Marco Island investigation finds falsified records

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:

Hundreds of buildings, including homes and businesses, were left potentially exposed to a deadly threat. Three Marco Island Fire Department employees abruptly left the department last year. Now, after a lengthy law enforcement investigation, a WINK News exclusive investigation can explain why.

No building and no community is exempt from the horrors of a structure fire, even on luxurious, picturesque Marco Island.

For a stretch of time, hundreds of condos and apartments and thousands of people were vulnerable to fires that their building’s safety devices might not have been equipped to handle.

Marco Island City Manager Mike McNees admits the severity of the problem.

“It’s one of our most fundamental roles is to help provide for the public safety. It’s very critical,” McNees says. “It’s getting a lot more attention and it needed it.”

Documents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show claims of falsified fire inspection reports led to a special investigation into the Marco Fire inspection records system starting in April 2022.

After looking closely, leadership realized just how large the problem was.

“We came to find out that there were a certain number of inspections over time that were entered as completed but had never been done,” McNees explains.

That number was approximately 200. 200 building reports that had been falsely submitted into the Marco Island Fire Department’s “Mobile-Eyes” inspection software.

The list includes massive residential buildings holding hundreds of homes along with various businesses across the island. All had been marked as inspected and safe but hadn’t been checked at all.

The accusations sparked a close examination from city staff of the inspection system.

“Clearly, they weren’t doing things properly according to their own rules,” McNees says.

Fire Chief Chris Byrne says the “Mobile Eyes” software was supposed to make coordinating and logging fire inspection reports easier. Instead, three employees submitted inspections that never happened.

“The issue was not with the software itself,” Chief Byrne explains. “It was how it was implemented and not built out to its true potential.”

One big sign helped law enforcement realize something had to be off. More than 70 fire inspection reports were submitted on one calendar day. It would’ve been physically impossible for anybody to visit all of those locations in one single shift.

Before a formal investigation could be launched, a long-time fire marshal and two fire inspectors resigned from Marco Island Fire. Officials say it’s still unclear how much of the blame lies with confusion over the inspection software versus blatant neglect of duty.

“There were no interviews and there was no inspection,” Chief Byrne admits. “Because all three of them resigned before I had the chance to talk with them.”

“Clearly, there were people who shirked their responsibilities,” McNees adds. “Whether that was laziness or whatever other reason, I can’t answer that.”

While no fires started in those 200 buildings, the risk was enormous. WINK News spoke with more than 10 of the businesses whose inspection records were falsified. None of them wanted to speak on-camera, but more than half claimed they had no knowledge of the falsified records.

Chief Byrne admits communication about the falsified records was informal but is also adamant the system has been corrected.

“There was outreach to our condo association and the business community,” Chief Byrne says. “Business is not going to be done today as it was in the past.”

“It’s a really high priority,” McNees agrees. “This is something that should have never happened.. They didn’t do a very good job. That’s why we had to clean it up.”

As a result of the departures, Marco Fire had to completely rebuild its fire inspection team from the ground up. “Mobile Eyes” training has been ramped up, with Chief Byrne and McNees taking direct roles in fire inspection supervision. A new Fire Marshal and an entirely new team of inspectors has been hired.

“It was a fresh start, it was a fresh opportunity for us to set the future for the fire prevention division,” Chief Byrne says.

Not an ideal way to rebuild, but Chief Byrne believes the island is safer than ever.

WINK News attempted to contact the three former Marco Fire employees, but we have not heard back. Records show the state attorney’s office did not pursue criminal charges on the former fire employees involved with the falsified inspection records, stating there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

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