Solving code jurisdiction challenges: Firefighters to sleep at UNC Asheville dorms for eight weeks

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unc asheville student residences
UNC Asheville student residences (rendering from Hanbury)

Four municipal firefighters will be stationed inside a UNC Asheville dorm deemed a safety risk for at least eight weeks, providing a stop-gap solution to fire safety concerns reported when the North Carolina State Department of Insurance (NCDOI) barred access to the $33 million project after its completion because of building inspection process and jurisdiction gaps.

Because it is a state-owned project, the five-building residence project is exempt from local building inspections, and the State Construction Office both manages and polices the construction, because it administers the Building Code. The construction office considered the buildings safe despite warnings from the Insurance Department and the Asheville Fire department starting in late May — and issued a certificate of occupancy, which was quickly reversed by the NCDOI.

“There’s just a whole lot of violations that were pointed out,” NCDOI Commissioner Mike Causey said at a news conference. “Unfortunately those violations were ignored by the State Construction Office.”

The state Department of Administration, which oversees the construction office, said in a statement that building safety is a priority and that the construction office had worked with UNC Asheville, the building’s designer and the contractor to “remedy any issues of concern that did not meet code,” the Charlotte Observer reported.

Fire safety officials reportedly could not step into the picture until the building was declared ready for occupancy by the construction office, but barred occupancy as the first students began moving into the residences.

Then university officials and the state’s insurance commissioner huddled to come up with a compromise solution to abate the dorm safety issues and allow students to move into the new residence halls.

The commissioner and the university’s chancellor worked late into the night on Aug. 18 night, along with attorneys and technical staff, to craft the agreement, according to the Department of Insurance.

“I want to thank Chancellor Cable for her diligence and patience in working through the process with our attorneys, and for her concern for the safety and well-being of students, faculty, and first responders,” Causey said. “She and her staff were very cordial, and she kept a calm demeanor under a lot of stress.”

“I take my statutory responsibility to make sure all state buildings, including university buildings, are safe seriously,” Causey said in a statement. “State law allows NCDOI to intervene only after the State Construction Office issues a Certificate of Occupancy. In this case, the Certificate of Occupancy was issued one day before the semester began. That required quick action by DOI’s Risk Management Division because of construction hazards and life-safety issues in the event of a fire.”

The university has agreed to the following abatement plan:

  • Repositioning the valves on the water supply pipes in the stairwells so that when firehoses are attached to them, they will no longer pose an obstruction to evacuating residents; and
  • Installing a sprinkler system in the attic of each dormitory acceptable to the Department of Insurance and the State Construction Office. This will make the dorms and stairwells safer in the event of a fire.

The agreement includes special fire protection measures for  the university to take to protect students while the abatement takes place:

  • The university must allow the Asheville Fire Department to park a fire engine with a 35-foot ladder near the dormitories.
  • The university will house four Asheville firefighters in one of the dorms free of charge. In addition, a 24-hour fire watch by a competent adult shall be implemented in each of the other four dorms.

In the spring of 2018, the Asheville Fire Department alerted NCDOI of fire hazards in the construction of the residence halls. The NCDOI Risk Management Division proactively recommended ways to remedy the hazards. By law, NCDOI could not intervene until the State Construction Office issued its Certificate of Occupancy.

“It is my desire that the NCDOI and the State Construction Office work hand-in-hand in future construction endeavors to ensure the safe construction of our state buildings and that they stay on schedule,” Causey said in the statement.

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