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NC moves closer to tighter construction safety standards

Firefighters worked to extinguish a massive five-alarm fire at an apartment building under construction in SouthPark on Thursday, May 18, 2023.
Charlotte Fire Department
Firefighters worked to extinguish a massive five-alarm fire at an apartment building under construction in SouthPark on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

It’s been nearly a year since a fire devoured an apartment complex under construction in SouthPark and killed two workers. Now state fire officials are hoping new stricter rules designed to keep construction sites safer will prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Gavin Off wrote about it for the Charlotte Observer. He joins me now.

Marshall Terry: Remind us first just what happened in SouthPark May 18 last year and whether anyone was held accountable.

Gavin Off: A 239-unit apartment building off of Liberty Road Drive was under construction when a generator's diesel motor caught fire. That generator was in a trailer that also contained some spray foam insulation, so that ignited too. The entire building went up in flames, trapping and killing two workers who were on the sixth floor. Now following the fire, the North Carolina Department of Labor found eight violations at the site, one citation found that the building’s exits were not arranged in a way that could give workers an easy way out, and the two workers who died, Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes, they were 460 feet away from the building's only exit. Now we talked to the boss afterwards and he said they would have had a chance to get out had there been a second way out.

Terry: Now you write the SouthPark building was a specific type of construction known as a podium or pedestal style. What is that and why is it relevant?

Off: A podium style essentially consists of a bottom story of non-combustible material. You can thin of concrete or steel and the upper floors are built of wood. It's relevant because fire officials say these buildings, especially the large ones made of small pieces of wood like two-by-fours, they can burn hot and fast. Then the whole structure can collapse, which happened in SouthPark, as one Charlotte Fire Department official told us afterward, there was nothing to stop the smoke in the fire.

Terry: How common is that type of structure in Mecklenburg County and across the U.S.?

Off: They're common. When the South Park fire happened last year, the county estimated that there were about a dozen of these buildings in Mecklenburg. Talking to fire experts recently, they said across the country, they're all over. In fact, they pointed to similar fires, big fires, in Prescott, AZ, Sacramento, CA and Raleigh back in 2017. The difference with those fires, though, no one died.

Terry: So the state Fire Marshall’s office wants to adopt most of the latest National Fire Protection Association standards. What’s in these new standards that’s different from what’s already in place?

Off: Unlike the previous editions, the updated codes include an entire chapter on improving safety at construction sites involving large wood frame buildings, like the one in SouthPark. The chapter includes two specific requirements that state officials think would really increase safety. One would have an independent fire safety manager on site and doing daily inspections. The other would require that the site turn in to the fire department a fire prevention program. Now this document outlines a number of thing, like the number of exits, where the exits are, where the combustible materials are and how to warn people if a fire actually breaks out.

Terry: How would these new rules affect developers?

Off: A good question. I haven't heard any pushback or negative effects from developers. In fact, I was told that the American Wood Council and the Apartments Association in North Carolina are on board.

Terry: So these new standards still have to be approved in North Carolina, right? When would they take effect, and any chance that doesn’t happen?

Off: Well, they've been approved by the North Carolina Building Code Council. And then on April 30, they go before the North Carolina Rules Review Commission. I'm told that they should pass without any problems. Now, if they get the OK from the Review Commission, the updated codes will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.