New buildings allowed to open in Charlotte despite fire safety concerns, records show
Revelation comes as Charlotte Fire Department confirms backlog of 11,000 inspections.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – Newly constructed buildings have been allowed to open in Charlotte despite outstanding fire safety concerns, records show.
A WBTV investigation found commercial and residential buildings open to the public without a final inspection to make sure alarms and sprinkler systems were working.
The revelations come as questions mount for the Charlotte Fire Department, which is in charge of enforcing the fire code to make sure contractors are following building safety requirements.
WBTV began investigating the department’s fire prevention program after the deadly five-alarm fire in SouthPark in May.
The investigation has identified a string of problems, including the fire department not enforcing a requirement for construction sites to have a fire prevention and response plan and a backlog of more than 11,000 overdue safety inspections.
CFD Chief Reginald Johnson and Fire Marshal Kevin Miller sat for an interview with WBTV Investigative Reporter David Hodges to answer, for the first time, questions about the problems that have been uncovered since the SouthPark fire.
WBTV used Mecklenburg County building inspection records to identify several buildings that appeared to be missing a final fire inspection after the construction was completed, called a “CO Inspection.”
Those CO inspections are conducted by fire inspectors and are required to make sure alarms, sprinklers and other fire suppression systems are properly working.
At My Salon Suite in NoDa, permit records show the county never issued the building a certificate of occupancy –commonly called a CO – even though the facility is actively used by dozens of hair stylists and other small businesses.
The building was granted a temporary certificate of occupancy, but that expired. The only outstanding issue with the permits is from the Charlotte Fire Department, which hasn’t conducted a CO inspection.
Miller did not directly answer WBTV’s question about the building but instead explained why buildings might be granted a temporary certificate of occupancy if the final fire inspection hasn’t been completed.
“It could be a bathroom, it could be something else that’s not directly related to the area in that building,” Miller said.
But records provided by the fire department to WBTV just minutes before the interview with Johnson and Miller show the issues with My Salon Suite’s fire inspection were bigger than that.
The fire inspection reports, which are kept internally by the city, show two inspections before the temporary CO was issued, and both are labeled “unsatisfactory.” The notes from the last inspection on Oct. 3 say the sprinkler heads were blocked. The report says there would be a follow-up inspection, but there aren’t any records showing whether the issue was fixed.
The contractor for the salon construction project emailed WBTV and claimed the issues have been resolved and they’re contacting the fire department to conduct a final inspection.
WBTV found evidence of other buildings that were missing a fire CO inspection but were already being used by the public. That includes the Hyatt Centric hotel in SouthPark.
The 175-room hotel opened in June 2021. The permit history shows the building only had a temporary CO, and inspections continued well past the opening. The final certificate of occupancy wasn’t granted until January 2022.
County records show a final fire inspection didn’t happen for months after the opening. During that time, all kinds of meetings and events were hosted at the hotel. An Instagram post from July 2021 shows Panthers legend Thomas Davis even had his retirement party there.
Inspection records for the hotel provided by Charlotte Fire were missing documents and paint an incomplete picture of the building’s history. The documents appear to combine two separate construction projects within the hotel over two different time periods.
WBTV asked Miller if completed construction projects were being properly inspected and buildings confirmed safe.
“We push our inspectors to do a thorough job so that you can be sure that the inspection that was just done was done with the top of efficiency, professionalism,” Miller said.
An official for contractor JE Dunn, the company that built the hotel, wrote in an email that the building was properly inspected before opening.
“The Certificate of Occupancy for the first phase was issued in late May 2021 ensuring the life and fire safety systems were functional, met required building and fire codes, and were inspected and approved. At no time was any area of the building delivered to the operator to open to the public without the appropriate Certificate of Occupancy,” the official wrote.
Building permit records reviewed by WBTV show the hotel was granted temporary CO’s in stages after the official opening. However, fire holds were placed on each of those TCO’s with a note stating, “still requires final inspection.”
Safety Inspection Backlog
Besides the CO inspections, Charlotte’s fire prevention staff also conducts regular “maintenance inspections” that are required by the state’s fire code. More than 11,000 of those inspections are overdue, according to information provided by the fire department.
Maintenance inspections check the fire suppression systems at hotels, apartments, churches and other buildings, and the state mandates they take place every 1-3 years depending on the type of building.
According to Johnson and Miller, the massive backlog of those inspections was caused by the COVID-19 lockdown and staff turnover. They said they have a plan to get caught up but aren’t sure when the department will eliminate the backlog.
“We do have an opportunity here to utilize overtime to get caught up, and we’re in the process of trying to get some part-time employees that can help us get caught up,” Johnson told WBTV.
The recently approved city budget shows the fire prevention staff isn’t going to receive much additional help.
While the FY24 budget highlights the addition of two additional full-time employees for fire code inspections and plan reviews, the fire prevention department was forced to make cuts in other places.
Overall, the city is adding five fire inspectors and one senior inspector while eliminating funding for four certified fire inspectors.
Miller told WBTV inspectors are scheduling morning, evening and weekend inspections in order to decrease the backlog.
“We have to think outside the box to get those inspections caught up,” Miller said.
Construction Safety and Stop Work Order
After weeks of ignoring our questions, the Charlotte Fire Department confirmed to WBTV that an inspector issued a stop work order for an apartment construction site on Wilkinson Boulevard.
The stop work order came days after WBTV visited the site and asked to see a key fire safety document required to be in place on every large construction site.
The order issued by the fire department claims the site was in violation for three separate reasons:
1. Fire Department Access Road is not in compliance.
2. Fire hydrants are not in place or operational.
3. Construction Pre-Fire Safety Plan.
WBTV first visited the site earlier this month while investigating whether construction sites were completing required fire prevention and preparation plans called pre-fire plans.
WBTV’s investigation revealed the Charlotte Fire Department is not reviewing or approving those plans.
The Charlotte Fire Department has repeatedly claimed that the department is in compliance with the fire code even though they are not reviewing or approving pre-fire plans. The state fire marshal also sent a statement to WBTV claiming Charlotte Fire was properly following the code.
However, the stop work order issued by the department at the Wilkinson Boulevard construction site states construction cannot resume until “A Construction Pre-Fire Safety Plan has been approved by your CO Fire Inspector.”
WBTV asked Johnson and Miller whether stop work orders have increased since the SouthPark fire, but the two officials claimed the orders have been a normal part of their business for years.
“It’s not been an increase as a result,” Johnson said.
Miller did not provide specific details on how many orders or violations have been issued since the fire.
“When we issue a stop work order, it is because of life safety. It’s because something is going to put the workers in danger,” Miller said.
Learning from the SouthPark Fire
Johnson told WBTV the department is still conducting a review of the SouthPark fire to learn what the department can do differently.
One change that has been taking place since the fire, according to Miller, is the timing of the fire department getting involved in the construction process.
“We want to make sure that we get boots on the ground earlier,” Miller said.
“We’re in the process of working with building standards to get alerted, emailed when a business has the permits and they have approved plans.”
Miller said that will give fire code officials the opportunity to meet with contractors and make sure they understand the fire code and what’s expected from the department.
Fire code experts from across the country have emphasized to WBTV that fire inspectors need to be involved in pre-construction meetings since they often don’t visit construction sites until the very end of a project.
Industry leaders say it is impossible for the fire department alone to enforce compliance in building construction and that it requires help from contractors, insurance companies and county building inspectors.
Johnson told WBTV contractors have been reaching out to the department since the fire to ask questions and make sure they’re in compliance. Miller said fire prevention has also taken initiative.
“We made an attempt to reach out to several of those general contractors to gauge the interest level to see if they wanted to meet so that we can get to the table together to talk about what our challenges are and the things that we’ll be looking for when we get moving forward,” Miller said.
Miller said he believes these efforts, that have been prioritized since the SouthPark fire and WBTV’s Investigation, will make another catastrophic fire less likely.
“It can absolutely contribute to preventing that from happening. We can’t say it’s 100%, but it will definitely be a step in a better direction for us,” Miller said.
Copyright 2023 WBTV. All rights reserved.