Charlotte Fire not monitoring construction site fire safety plans

A WBTV Investigation reveals Charlotte Fire isn’t approving any construction pre-fire plans, required by state code.
A WBTV Investigation reveals Charlotte Fire isn’t approving any construction pre-fire plans, required by state code.
Updated: Jul. 6, 2023 at 5:45 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Fire plans designed to prevent construction fires and prepare firefighters are not being kept or approved by the Charlotte Fire Department, a WBTV investigation has found.

The plans—known as a pre-fire plan—are required by the fire code to be created by builders in consultation with the fire department.

WBTV started investigating whether fire code was being followed, after the deadly construction site fire on Liberty Row Drive in South Park that killed two workers, Reuben Holmes and Demonte Sherrill.

Charlotte Fire has said the construction site did not have a pre-fire plan.

But that did not stop construction.

In the wake of that revelation, WBTV has dug deeper into the fire department’s involvement in reviewing, retaining and approving these safety plans, which are meant to prevent fires at construction sites and help crews respond quickly in the event of a fire.

The pre-fire plan document outlines emergency contacts, building materials, hydrant locations and precautions taken with dangerous processes like welding and cutting. It’s required by North Carolina’s fire code and is supposed to be developed, maintained and approved “in cooperation with the fire chief” or a “fire code official.”

The 2015 International Fire Code adopted by the state of North Carolina says changes to the pre-fire plan “must be reported to the fire department responder immediately” because it “could affect the fire department’s ground attack.”

Fire code expert Jeffrey Shapiro says having an approved pre-fire plan is “absolutely critical” to having a successful outcome.

“The (building) owner and the owner’s team need to pay very close attention and have a pre-fire safety plan,” Shapiro told WBTV.

“That’s communicated to the people that are on-site and that is discussed with the fire department so that they have emergency response planning in place before things really get moving on the site.”

WBTV requested pre-fire plans for six different multifamily construction sites across the city from the Charlotte Fire Department.

In an email response, a spokesperson for CFD wrote that keeping those plans wasn’t required of the fire department.

“Those plans are not records that are required to be delivered, housed, or stored in a database of this department,” the spokesperson wrote.

Originally, CFD did not answer how pre-fire plans are being drafted in cooperation with the department, or approved, as required by North Carolina code, if the records don’t exist within the department.

In an email sent Thursday, a CFD spokesperson clarified that pre-fire plans are not being approved by the department.

“The Fire Chief or Fire code official has not approved pre-fire plans for any buildings,” the spokesperson wrote.

While not being direct, the CFD spokesperson implied North Carolina’s current fire code does not require the approval of pre-fire plans while the most updated code does.

“The Fire Chief or Fire code official has not approved pre-fire plans because none have been presented for approval. Proposed new code revisions; The preapproved fire plans shall be submitted and approved prior to start of construction,” the spokesperson wrote.

“Our fire inspectors’ main goal is to decrease any potential fire and life safety hazards and to educate how to operate safely.”

CFD declined WBTV’s request to interview Fire Chief Reginald Johnson and Fire Marshal Kevin Miller.

It’s not clear that anyone is paying attention to pre-fire plans.

WBTV visited two different constructions sites and asked to see crews’ pre-fire plans. A reporter was turned away at both sites. And representatives for the construction companies did not return our calls.

“I think ultimately the best way to ensure that the buildings are going to be compliant is making sure that the owner and the insurance company are working together to make sure that these provisions are complied with as a condition of being able to insure your property,” Shapiro said.

WBTV sent multiple emails to industry leaders to ask if they require their members to follow fire code in order to maintain membership.

The National Multifamily Housing Council, a coalition of the nation’s largest apartment builders, and Builders Mutual, one of the leading construction insurance companies in North Carolina, never responded to emails from WBTV asking how they hold their members accountable.

WBTV’s questions for this story have prompted a series of evolving answers from North Carolina’s Chief State Fire Marshal.

At first, a spokesperson for Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor said that his office had spoken with Charlotte Fire and confirmed they did not need to keep copies of pre-fire plans on file.

But in a follow-up email, sent the next day, the state fire marshal backed off that position.

A spokesperson wrote the “position is that the local office must speak to the retainment of local fire records, just as the building contractor is responsible for retaining permitting paperwork.”

In yet another email sent later Thursday a spokesperson wrote “‘Charlotte is currently following the NC Fire Code. These are things that the fire code revision committee is currently looking into and how these matters conform with the latest version of NFPA 241.’”

Despite sending the press release about the failure of the developer to follow fire code at the South Park construction site, CFD says it has not issued any citations to the builder.

WBTV also asked for records of any developer or contractor being cited for not having a pre-fire plan over the last year.

In an email a spokesperson wrote “Charlotte Fire does not typically cite developers; we would generally issue a “stop work” order until the problems are rectified.”

Charlotte Fire hasn’t provided an example of a violation yet.