Fire Code Checks Overdue in Lincoln, North Carolina

Area growth and a lack of qualified personnel are blamed for an estimated several hundred overdue fire code inspections in Lincoln County, but officials are hopeful a new assistant fire marshal will reduce the backlog.

Fire inspections check buildings for safety violations such as dangerous wiring, lack of proper fire extinguishing equipment or blocked exits.

"Not being able to know the history of the building, if it has the fire safety equipment it needs to be open for public, that's the biggest danger," said Susan Spake, director of emergency management.

The overdue inspections stretch back as far as nine years and largely involve churches, Spake said. She told county commissioners at a budget workshop Tuesday it would take about 2 1/2 years to catch up on inspections.

"We have facilities that have not been inspected since 1996," Spake told commissioners. "It's the county's responsibility to do inspections. There's a major liability to the county should any facility have a major fire."

Although the county used to have an assistant fire marshal, the position has been vacant for about a decade. The fire marshal is the only employee able to conduct the inspections.

The county already is looking to fill the assistant marshal position, which was approved in January after a reclassification of an administrative assistant's job.

"Ten years ago the job was cut, and we've had 10 years of growth and more and more people and businesses moving in," said Jay Flynn, chief of the Denver Fire Department. "That's the reason that the fire marshal's office got behind.

"Obviously, it's a concern. The county's been made aware of it for several years, but it fell on deaf ears." Periodic fire inspections became mandatory statewide in 1993 as part of new building code regulations.

Under the regulations, schools must be fire inspected twice a year; day care and nursing facilities are required to be reviewed at least once a year. Foster care homes must be inspected every two years, and general businesses and churches can wait up to three years between inspections.

Logistical problems -- including not knowing which buildings are up for reinspection -- have hampered the backlog problem. Employees have had to manually sift through tax records and inspection records to determine which properties are overdue, Spake said.

The department is now programming this data into a software system that will automatically determine which locations need to be inspected.

"The growth is just a major factor in this," Spake said. "Inspections are just like anything else: The more growth you have, the more employees you have to have."

Last year, the county fire marshal conducted 113 inspections; since Jan. 25 this year, he has conducted 94 inspections.

Other counties said they routinely inspected several hundred a year and were up-to-date on their fire inspections.

Three fire inspectors, including the fire marshal, conduct fire inspections in Catawba County. They inspect 1,180 buildings every three years.

"We pride ourselves on keeping up with them; it's tough, but we make it work," said J. David Pruitt, Catawba County fire marshal.

Gaston County also is up-to-date on its fire code inspections. Six fire code inspectors in the county oversee inspections of about 1,700 or 1,800 buildings every three years. Last year, the inspectors conducted about 1,000 inspections.

Distributed by the Associated Press