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Up to code, but underprepared

Charleston, W.Va.-- Commercial office space in Charleston may not be as safe as possible in the event of fire, despite the fact that buildings are compliant with fire and building codes, local officials said.

That's because buildings are regulated by the building code at the time that they were built, not updated building codes.

"We can't do anything more than what the state law requires and obviously we don't want to do anything less than what the state law requires," Charleston Fire Marshall Ken Tyree said. "Anytime you have the public indoors and emergency personnel responding to a building, you have to agree to hope it's as safe as possible."

The local building commission and the local fire marshal's inspection team jointly handle building and fire and safety code inspections for all commercial office space in the city. The standards that those agencies enforce are set by the state fire marshal and then adopted by local municipalities.

Currently Charleston operates under the 2009 International Building Code, while the state recently adopted the 2012 International Building Code. Harmon said that the city would update its code before Sept. 23, when the new state code takes effect.

"We want to keep everything as current as possible here in Charleston because we want our buildings built according to those codes," Charleston building commissioner Tony Harmon said. "We want the city to grow, we want it to be safe and we want it to have buildings that are going to last for 100 years instead of being sub-standard properties."

New buildings must abide by the current building codes, but older office buildings are regulated by the building code that was in place when they were built.

The fire department inspects more than 10,000 buildings around the city. The building commission performs 50 to 75 inspections every two weeks. 

"It's alarming and we try to do everything we can whenever the fire department has an inspection or an office building changes hands, we go and make sure it is as safe as it can be," Harmon said.

He said his office has more inspectors and technology than it ever had in his 21 years working at the building commission. Any time a building is renovated it must conform to the current fire codes.

"Whenever they go to renovate an existing building, if they tear out, for example, a wall and they're going to replace that wall every component within that wall which they replaced must be brought up to the codes that are presently in place," Harmon said.

Inspectors check fire protection equipment like sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers and fire alarms to make sure they are working properly. If a building has emergency lighting, they ensure that it works. They check the number of exits, how accessible they are and if they are clearly identified. 

Huntington Square, a high-rise office building in downtown Charleston, lacks a sprinkler system.

"In the last 30 days, we completed a building evacuation test that was observed by the police and fire departments and was successful. We are compliant with all building codes," Maureen Brown, a spokeswoman for Huntington Bank, which owns the building, said in an email.

Construction on Huntington Square was completed in 1970.

Charleston's other high rises are mostly governed by older building codes.

Out of Charleston's six high-rise office spaces, only the United Center and Laidley Tower finished initial building construction during the 1980s.The BB&T Tower and City Center East completed construction in 1976. Chase Tower was constructed in 1960.

"We do have concerned citizens that call us being occupants in the commercial buildings," Tyree said. "It's a never ending battle to ensure the safety of all the city of Charleston."

"We know the state of West Virginia is one of the highest in the country when it comes to fire death," Tyree said. "There's a hole, and we're all mindful of that."

Any new building or structure higher than 40 feet, must have an automatic fire extinguishing system throughout the entire building, installed in accordance with national fire codes.

Tyree said education is one of the department's best tools for safety when the law does not allow them to mandate changes in older office buildings.

Along, with education, Tyree said more strategic planning and technology would help ensure safety.

"As those things continue to mold themselves and come together, to really have the continuity, I think we can have success in ensuring that people are staying compliant in their buildings and also the public is being kept safe as well as emergency responders," Tyree said. Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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