The University of North Carolina Asheville is spending $2,500 per day for off-duty firefighters to reside in The Woods, a new $34-million complex of five apartment-style dorms, after an inspection this summer found that the dorms do not meet fire safety standards despite receiving a certificate of occupancy, according to the Asheville Citizen Times.
The firefighters work rotating 24-hour shifts, and the Asheville Fire Department is also keeping a truck nearby to help with any needed response, the Citizen Times found. The firefighters stationed in the dorm complex also practice daily safety drills and are assisting the university with emergency planning evaluations.
The investigation by the Citizen Times turned up a number of potentially serious issues that were first identified by regulatory officials in late spring and early summer 2018.
- An elevator and stairway shaft that are not constructed to meet a two-hour fire rating
- Stairwells that are too narrow for traffic during an emergency
- A stairwell in the first building that will be completely blocked as soon as the standpipe in the stairwell is used to charge a fire hose
- Areas without sprinklers
- Improperly constructed firewalls
The Battle for Student Safety
The code issues didn’t crop up overnight, the Citizen Times found.
Correspondence between stakeholders and state departments reveals the steps that led to the firefighters taking up residence in the dorms.
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May: The Woods, which is intended to house 300 students when the 2018-2019 academic year begins in August, undergoes its initial inspection.
June 1: Bryan Heckle, director of risk management for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, notifies four managers at the North Carolina Department of Insurance that a building code enforcement officer “identified major code violation issues, substandard construction and buildings that barely met code and had code exceptions.”
June 14: The State Construction Office issues a stop work order to halt construction on the dorms.
Victor Stephenson, assistant director of the state construction office, cites “numerous photographs of what appears to be gross negligence in the installation and maintaining the integrity of fire rated walls, shafts assemblies and penetrations.”
The same day, Dean Andrews, building code enforcement supervisor for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, emails Bryan Heckle (director of the State Fire Marshal’s Office’s Risk Management division) explaining that he gave the State Construction Office “pictures showing the design of the stairways do not meet code and the fire ratings for the elevator shaft and the stairway shaft are also improperly constructed.”
The email also says that the State Construction Office “agreed that the stairways are not code compliant as designed and may have to be removed and redesigned to meet code.”
June 18: A detailed plan to address the construction issues is reviewed by the State Construction Office, according to UNCA.
June 19: The stop work order is lifted.
July 23: Barry Hendren, assistant fire chief of the Asheville Fire Department, cites concerns including “limited sprinkler protection” in an email to Mark Case, a building code enforcement officer at the state’s Department of Insurance.
“The structures will present a challenge operationally if we are confronted with a fire there,” Hendren explains.
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Aug. 3: The Department of Insurance sends the UNCA Chancellor’s Office another letter with information about further issues at The Woods.
The letter notifies UNCA that “even if a Certificate of Occupancy is issued by the State Construction Office, [the Department of Insurance] will not allow beneficial occupancy of [The Woods] until the hazards are abated.”
Aug. 6: The Department of Insurance sends UNCA another letter about its concerns.
Aug. 15: The State Construction Office issues a certificate of occupancy for The Woods that will allow students to move in.
Aug. 16: Around 5 p.m., UNCA receives an email notice from the Department of Insurance stating that the department is prohibiting all use of the buildings “until these hazards are abated.”
Some students have already started moving in and are temporarily relocated to nearby hotels.
Aug. 17: A compromise is reached allowing students to move into The Woods. The university develops a plan to address the Department of Insurance’s concerns, with the 24-hour fire watch continuing in the meantime.
What This Means for Facilities Professionals
The implications are clear: Whether you’re launching a new construction project or renovating an existing building, sticking to the letter of the law is crucial.
If a regulatory body red-flags any aspect of your project, make sure it’s resolved. Otherwise, you could end up with a financial burden (and potential legal issues) like the one UNCA is currently dealing with.
If you’re not renovating your building, it’s still worth investing your time in making sure you’re not leaving your organization vulnerable to unnecessary legal exposure.
Make sure you’re conducting your annual fire inspection as necessary so that if an emergency does happen, you’ll be able to get everyone out quickly and easily.
Consider asking your local fire department to take a look at your facility; they can make recommendations for how you can manage your building better and spot potential trouble areas before they become actual problems.
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