DALLAS (CBS11 I-TEAM) – A condominium building where a grandmother died and 60 families lost their homes last March hadn’t undergone a required annual fire safety test or inspection in years, a CBS11 I-Team investigation reveals.
The March 3, 2017 fire at Preston Place Condominiums at 6255 W. Northwest Highway in North Dallas was the city’s biggest blaze in more than a decade. Nearly 700 rescuers responded to the tragedy which caused $21.8 million in damage.
Firefighters were severely delayed being called to the three-story fire, according to an internal fire department memo obtained by CBS11, which states “it is unknown if the fire detection system operated.” The blaze raced out of control as firefighters went door to door to rescue residents, many of whom said they never heard an alarm.
An I-Team review of Preston Place’s financial records found no payment related to fire alarm safety inspections in recent years.
“I don’t know that we did,” Pat Nolan, the building’s longtime manager, said when asked if the building’s fire alarm required annual testing.
Dallas fire code adopts two national industry standards which state building owners “shall be responsible” for hiring a licensed inspector to perform annual tests.
“If it says shall, then there’s not any leeway to me,” said Ross Montelbano, who spent 37 years as a fireman, fire marshal and building inspector in Shreveport, Louisiana. “The bible for all firefighters in America is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). They use language in there ‘shall’ or ‘should.’ Should means it’s a good idea. Shall, it says, you have to do it.”
How often a fire department is required to check buildings for compliance is not as well defined. According to the International Fire Code, a “fire code official is authorized to conduct such inspections as are deemed necessary.”
“You’re opening a can of worms here,” Robert Neale, Government Relations Vice President of Fire Service Activities at the International Code Council, said in an email to CBS 11. “The challenge most jurisdictions have with establishing inspection frequencies is having the staffing to accomplish them. That’s why the code leaves it up to the fire code official to determine “as often as may be necessary” inspections. The other question is “how frequent is frequent enough” and “why?” Many jurisdictions try to achieve annual visits, but this is an administrative decision rarely based on risk.”
Dallas fire code dictates buildings maintain proof of inspections for at least two years, but doesn’t require building owners or inspectors to submit the testing for verification. Some have likened the arrangement to a sort of honor system.
“I’ve never heard of an honor system for fire protection,” Montelbano said. “It would concern me in that how much are you trusting them.”
Dallas city council member Jennifer Staubach Gates said she wants to know if proof of alarm inspections should be filed with the city so that buildings are no longer policing themselves.
“I think we need to look at these fires and see if there is something related to our building codes that can keep something like this from happening again,” said Staubach Gates, whose district includes Preston Place.
Montelbano, now retired and living in North Texas, said apartment and condo buildings in Shreveport were inspected for compliance once or twice a year when he was fire marshal.
“It’s not that you’re trying to catch somebody doing something wrong, you’re just trying to make them prove to you that they’ve done everything right,” he said.
Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief David Coatney declined multiple interview requests to discuss the deadly Preston Place fire, which is now the subject of a criminal investigation.
“Dallas Fire-Rescue performs full property inspections of multi-family dwellings on an average of once every two years; however, a given property may be visited as frequently as necessary given incoming complaints for specific hazards,” Chief Coatney said in an email. “More frequent inspections are often conducted as necessary for reports of locked or blocked exits, locked or blocked pedestrian gates and non-functioning fire department access gates.”
The chief refused, however, to say when his department last inspected Preston Place, where 89-year-old grandmother, Jacqueline McDonald, lost her life.
Contact Investigative Reporter Ginger Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org and Investigative Producer Jason Sickles at email@example.com. Follow them on Twitter at @gingercbs11 and @jasonsickles.