New NC Fire Code likely to change after WBTV Investigation

A WBTV Investigation uncovered the state building code council reduced violations for builder violations.
A WBTV Investigation uncovered the state building code council reduced violations for builder violations.
Updated: Sep. 22, 2023 at 4:30 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The North Carolina Building Code Council might revisit the recently adopted state fire code after a WBTV Investigation raised questions about how the document was amended. The code confusion is connected to a WBTV investigation revealing a new fire inspection record from the SouthPark construction site that caught fire in May.

Thursday, the WBTV Investigates Team reported on a Charlotte Fire Department inspector’s visit to the South Park construction site just seven days before a fire took two workers’ lives and destroyed one of the buildings. The inspector’s report indicates he was “on-site” at the construction project despite previous statements from the Charlotte Fire Marshal claiming no one from the department ever visited the construction project.

The record obtained by WBTV refutes that claim. The inspector’s notes indicate even though the sprinkler contractor was not there, and the inspection was cancelled, he stayed on the site for thirty minutes talking with the general contractor about phasing the building for “partial occupancy, knox box location, scheduling, c/o process.”

An unnamed CFD employee sent an email to WBTV from the public information office account with new information, claiming the contractor was never on-site but spoke to the contractor in a nearby parking lot.

“To clarify, our inspector never made it to the jobsite for that inspection as it was cancelled prior to him reaching the site. It was scheduled for an onsite inspection, so therefore is labeled like that in the system, but he was never on site,” the email said.

“The inspector happened to be pulled over in a parking lot nearby, and the general contractor came over to chat with him on the topics the inspector noted in the document.”

The fire inspector’s notes don’t mention the absence of a standpipe or lack a pre-fire plan on the construction site. According to fire code consultant Jeff Shapiro, that isn’t an indictment of the inspector.

“The big challenge we face in the fire service is we don’t have enough resources to inspect everything all the time,” Shapiro said.

“It’s just not feasible to be able to do a full building inspection every time you stop at a site.”

Shapiro has written numerous updates for the International Fire Code, including a rule in the 2021 International Fire Code to help alleviate the burden on busy fire inspectors.

Shapiro’s code requires the construction site safety director to conduct daily fire safety inspections on things like welding, combustible materials, hydrants and standpipes. The results are required to be documented and maintained on-site by the contractor.

“This was designed in a way that every inspector who walks on the job site should be asking, ‘hey, can I see this?’ I want to be hanging on the wall on a clipboard, signed every day,” Shapiro said.

For situations like the one in South Park, a daily report would be easy to check, instead of conducting an entire unplanned inspection.

Shaprio’s rule went through a national consensus process and was adopted to the 2021 IFC.

The North Carolina Building Code Council only recently passed the 2021 IFC version. But they removed a specific section from the code Shapiro wrote. While the daily inspections will be required, the corresponding violations were struck from the new code that will take effect in 2025.

“I was shocked that the North Carolina process took this out of the code,” Shapiro said.

The enforcement provisions written by Shapiro would allow fire inspectors to issue a stop work order to contractors if there’s a “failure to properly conduct, document and maintain” the daily inspections.

In place of the violations, the NC Building Code Council referenced a milder set of enforcement mechanisms in the code that allow fire departments to issue fines. Shapiro believes that won’t get the message across to contractors.

“A contractor that’s looking at these requirements is going to see right in front of them that if you don’t do this, you’re going to get shut down,” Shapiro said.

“On behalf of all the people who worked on this and myself as the author of, I’m really disappointed that they would take this out of the code.”

WBTV sent an email to every member of the Building Code Council along with staff at the NC Department of Insurance that support them, asking why the code was amended.

A spokesperson from NCDOI responded with a statement saying the amendment was intentional but still included a mistake.

“The joint Fire/Building ad hoc committee deleted Section 3303.3.1 Violations of the 2021 IFC and instead added a reference to “see Section 109.” Unfortunately, this is a typographical error and the reference should be to Section 112 Violations in Chapter 1, which provides general authority to local fire code officials to institute appropriate action or proceedings for violations of the NC Fire Code under NC law. The Council will need to take action to correct the reference.” the spokesperson wrote.

“Staff is looking into this issue and may find additional information regarding the timing of this change to Chapter 33.”

According to the website UpCodes, 14 states have already adopted the 2021 IFC. A search of those states’ adopted language on UpCodes reveals none of them ammended the violations section of the daily fire safety inspections requirement.

WBTV Investigates: Fire and Failure

The WBTV Investigates Team has been analyzing videos, communications and records related to the South Park fire for months to uncover what went wrong and if the deaths of Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes could have been prevented.

Many of the answers are found before firefighters ever arrived, even before the fire started.

WBTV obtained a copy of the Charlotte Fire Department’s investigative file, giving a first-hand look at what fire investigators know and a second-by-second account of what happened.

All of it has been put together in a special report called WBTV Investigates: Fire and Failure.

It will be exclusively released online September 27th along with digital extras, interviews and interactive maps breaking down safety failures on the construction site and expert analysis of what needs to be done better.

The special will air on WBTV and streaming services, September 28th at 7 p.m.