N.C. officials hope to adopt the latest building safety codes as the anniversary of the massive fire approaches

By Gavin Off
The Charlotte Observer

RALEIGH, NC – In celebration of the one-year anniversary of the fatal SouthPark construction site fire approaches, so also a potential tightening North Carolina safety codeswhich officials hope will prevent similar tragedies.

On May 18 last yearflames erupted from the diesel engine of a foam-insulated trailer on the bottom floor of a 239-unit luxury apartment building under construction.

Within minutes, they climbed over walls spanning floors and up the building’s stairwell and elevator shafts to the sixth floor, where two workers who were unable to escape were killed.

(RELATED: Watch: NC firefighters rescue crane operator trapped above massive 5-alarm fire)

Now the State Fire Marshal’s Office is trying to adopt most of the latest National Fire Protection Association standards for building safety. The changes would increase fire safety measures on multi-story wooden buildings during construction, such as those that burned down in Charlotte last year and in Raleigh in 2017.

The state Building Code Council approved the change in March. And the state’s Rules Review Commission, the Legislature’s affiliated agency that reviews rules adopted by state agencies, will review them later this month.

“We are a reactive society within the fire service,” said State Fire Chief Brian Taylor, who supports the stricter rules. “After an unfortunate incident like this, where two lives were lost, we will look at what we can improve and make that change.”

The fire, one of the most destructive in Charlotte history, started when the diesel engine caught fire, according to an investigative report from the N.C. Department of Labor. That engine was enclosed in a trailer that contained flammable foam insulation.

A recognized fire risk

Unlike previous editions, the 2022 NFPA Standards include a section specifically for improving safety on large wood-frame construction sites.

These buildings are most at risk of fire during construction, when flammable materials are often presentlocation and no sprinklers were installed, the NFPA said.

The risk increases if the buildings are what some in the industry call “toothpick towers,” multi-story structures made of lightweight wood, such as two-by-fours and plywood-like boards.

“You’re not talking about heavy solid oak wood,” says Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

(RELATED: ‘Murph, it’s time to climb’: NC captain describes crane operator’s rescue)

The SouthPark Building, located on Liberty Row Drive, was a podium or pedestal structure. The lower floor was made of non-combustible materials such as concrete and steel, while the upper floors were made of wood.

Podium-style buildings are becoming increasingly common in Mecklenburg County and across the US. About a dozen of the apartment buildings were under construction in Mecklenburg County when the SouthPark fire broke out, a county spokesman said.

Fires have destroyed a number of massive wooden buildings under construction in recent years, from SouthPark and Raleigh in North Carolina to Prescott, Ariz ., Unpleasant Sacramento, California.

The best way to make these construction sites safe is to limit their size, which the new code does not do, Corbett said.

“The problem is you’re trying to oversee King Kong in chains,” Corbett said of the new fire standards. “And Child Kong is all the wood…. How do we make something safe that is inherently unsafe?”

Newer codes

The National Fire Protection Association’s updated standards require several safety measures that are now not necessary here when building large wooden structures, said Charlie Johnson, chief fire code consultant for the N.C. Office of State Fire Marshal.

There is a need for an on-site fire prevention program manager to conduct and record daily safety inspections, which can be shared with local building and fire officials.

(RELATED: ‘We had several maydays’: NC firefighters trapped during fire rescues)

According to the Charlotte Fire Department’s investigation into the fire, the SouthPark building did not have an active standpipe or water connection the height of the building.

The inspections may not have prevented the foam trailer from catching fire, but they might have found deficiencies in the building’s standpipe and number of exits, said Robin Zevotek, NFPA chief engineer.

Construction workers Demonte Tyree Sherrill and Reuben Holmes were installing windows and doors on the sixth floor of the construction site, which has only one exit, when the fire broke out.

Holmes called his boss, Keith Suggs, around 9 a.m. The men were trapped because they could not reach the only exit, he said.

“Whoever thought it was a good idea to have a building the size of a football field with a toothpick tower have a single exit,” said Corbett, a fire scientist at John Jay College,

“That’s madness.”

Last November, the N.C. Department of Labor reported finding several violations in the SouthPark fire.

For example, inspectors found that the building’s exits were not arranged to provide employees with an easy way out. Sherrill and Holmes were more than 450 feet from the only stairwell, one citation said.

Daily inspections may have helped

Johnson, the Department of Insurance official, credited Mecklenburg County Fire Marshal Ted Panagiotopoulos and Patrick Granson, code enforcement director for the county, with requesting the change.

Panagiotopoulos contacted the state Fire Code Revision Committee last May and asked if it would look into updating North Carolina’s codes, Johnson said.

“If Ted hadn’t said, ‘Let’s look at that… I don’t know if that would have been an effort we would have made,’” Johnson said.

A fire prevention program manager, who would be hired by the property owner, would have the authority to review and change the site’s safety plan, Zevotek said of the stricter NFPA rules. Fire prevention programs must be submitted to the local fire department according to the rules.

The fire prevention programs would specify the number and locations of building exits, identify flammable materials, outline how employees would warn each other if a fire breaks out and ways to control a fire.

These plans are critical for rapid response, says Ray O’Brocki, director of fire relations for the American Wood Council and administrator of the Construction Fire Safety Coalition, which aims to reduce the number and severity of fires during construction .

“You have to know what you’re going to do before something happens because you won’t have time when something actually happens,” O’Brocki said. “What kind of material is it? How does it burn? Can we extinguish it with water? And if you can’t put it out with water, what can you put it out with?”

Postponing one important requirement

If the North Carolina code is approved by the rules review committee, it would not exactly match the NFPA’s standards.

The state’s Building Code Council, a 17-member board that changes North Carolina’s building codes, has pushed back the time contractors would have to file for a site’s fire prevention program. Instead of requiring contractors to submit the plan before a building permit is issued, the council changed the wording to allow contractors to submit the plan before breaking ground.

The additional time would give safety officials on site more time to better understand how construction will unfold and what safety measures need to be taken, Zevotek said.

But the delay, which Johnson is not in favor of, could come at a price, he said.

Fire safety experts said linking the plan submission to a building permit would help ensure compliance.

“If you hold the building permit over their heads, they’ll give you anything,” said O’Brocki, an official with the American Wood Council. “Once they get a building permit and put the shovel in the ground, it becomes very difficult to get anything out of it. That’s the unfortunate thing for Charlotte.”

Johnson expects the Rules Review Commission to approve the fire code change on April 30 when commissioners meet again, he said, noting he is now aware of any opposition.

Taylor, the state fire marshal, agreed.

“I can’t remember during my time in Raleigh, and my 30 years in the fire service, that something like this was looked at so positively,” Taylor said.

If approved, the stricter rules would come into effect on January 1, 2025.

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