Firefighters will live in UNC Asheville dorms until fire-safety improvements are made

Zachery Eanes and Richard Stradling, The News & Observer

One of five residence halls that make up The Woods, a new complex at UNC Asheville. State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey on Thursday barred the university from allowing students to move in to The Woods because of several fire safety hazards. Photo by Sydney Stradling, The N&O

Firefighters will be living with students at UNC Asheville for the foreseeable future, after the university and the State Construction Office reached an agreement with the Department of Insurance over safety concerns in five new dormitories.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey on Thursday had barred students from moving into five new dorms at the school. That was the day before the bulk of university students were set to begin moving in, The News & Observer reported.

A spokesman told the N&O that conditions at the new dorms could be fire hazards — including the use of wood in walls in stairwells and elevator shafts as well as the location of water pipes in the stairwells, which could make it difficult to get out during a fire.

Students began moving in late Friday as part of the deal struck between Causey and UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy J. Cable.

The five new residence halls, called The Woods, offer apartment-style housing with full-size kitchens. The buildings are four stories each, with a capacity of 294 students.

As part of the agreement, the university must allow the Asheville Fire Department to park a fire engine near the dorms and house four firefighters in one of the dorms free of charge while the hazards are fixed, according a news release from the Department of Insurance.

Additionally, a 24-hour fire watch by a “competent adult” must be implemented in the four dorms not housing firefighters.

Department of Insurance spokesman Barry Smith said he wasn’t sure how long the firefighters would stay in the dorms, adding he’s heard it could be somewhere between a few weeks and a couple of months.

“This is something that will allow the students to move back even though the hazards are still there while the repairs are taking place,” Smith said in an interview on Sunday. “We wanted to make sure there will be more protection there to mitigate the hazard.

“You will have firefighters right there and a truck there. They will be able to fight a fire almost immediately.”

To mitigate the hazards, the university must reposition the valves on the water supply pipes in the stairwells so that they will no longer pose an obstruction to evacuating residents, the news release said. Also, the school must install a sprinkler system in the attic of each dorm.

“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 in a statement. “She and her staff were very cordial, and she kept a calm demeanor under a lot of stress.”

The news comes during Cable’s first week on the job at UNC Asheville, a public liberal arts school with about 3,900 undergraduate students. Some university officials said they were not happy with the way Causey handled the situation, the N&O reported.

In a message to the campus community on Thursday, Cable said she received an email from Commissioner Causey at 5 that evening saying that he was prohibiting use of the dorms — about the same time his office sent out a news release describing them as unsafe.

Harry Smith, the head of the UNC system Board of Governors, told the N&O that he thought the press release was “grandstanding” and unfair to university administrators who had done everything they were supposed to do to get the buildings ready for students.

“To say that we were trying to move students into an unsafe environment is absolutely incorrect,” Smith said in an interview with the N&O on Friday.

Smith said the State Construction Office, which oversaw construction of the five dorms, apparently disagreed with the Insurance Department over the safety of the buildings when it declared them ready for occupancy. “I can’t imagine that the State Construction Office is going to sign off on something that’s unsafe,” he told the N&O.

However, Barry Smith, the Insurance Department spokesman, said the department raised concerns about the buildings back in May and urged the State Construction Office to make fixes. In a letter to UNC Asheville dated Aug. 3, department officials noted that the dorms contained potential fire hazards related to the stairwells, elevator shafts and placement of pipes.

“They were not blind-sided on anything,” Barry Smith told the N&O on Friday. “This has been going on for months. They knew that we did not feel that the dorms are safe.”

 

Zachery Eanes and Richard Stradling write for The News & Observer, where this article originally ran.