Morgantown fire chief says apartment platform not up to code

Earlier this month, a West Virginia University student, Brian Weithenauer, died after falling from an apartment window. Weithenauer climbed out of the apartment’s bathroom window onto a platform to smoke a cigarette. The wooden platform had no railing.

The apartment is located above the High Street nightclub Rain. This is the second person to fall from the apartments above Rain within the last eight months – Brianna Smith fell from a window in August and foul play wasn’t suspected. Smith survived, but had several injuries.

It has still not been reported if they fell from the same window or apartment. However, according to an article originally published in the Dominion Post in August, “Mark Sanger, manager of Rain, said the area where the woman fell is behind the building in an alleyway only accessible through Rain.” They both fell into the same alley, but Smith was reported as falling from a back window at 240 High Street. All reports of Weithenauer say he fell from 250 High Street.

The alley is between Rain and the Monongalia Magistrate Court. From the street, the platform and ladder don’t seem to be visible.

In today’s Dominion Post, Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Caravasos said the platform and wrought iron ladder outside the bathroom window where Weithenauer fell do not meet fire code as a fire escape. The platform should not be made of wood, and he said the ladder seemed to have been built when the building was built in the 1920’s.

The Dominion Post also had records of the last code enforcement inspection of the apartment from Dec. 20, 2010. The article stated there were only three minor items on the list, none of which included the platform. Code enforcement is required to inspect an apartment once every three years.

Caravasos said the fire department had no record of inspecting the apartments because they are registered as a duplex with the city. The fire department doesn’t inspect single-family residences and duplexes. This is something I’m going to have to look into, because it doesn’t make sense. There’s no information about fire code on the city of Morgantown’s website, and it directs people to call someone for more information. Morgantown follows fire safety regulations set forth by the National Fire Protection Association.

In a previous post, a commenter questioned why code enforcement didn’t catch the platform after Smith fell in August. I’ve searched through all the stories I could find about her fall, but nothing mentions a code enforcement or fire inspection. The stories at that time seemed to focus mostly on identifying Smith and the status of her recovery. Maybe because she had such a high alcohol content at the time of the fall, officials blamed that and not the window/building?

– Leann


The Players: Morgantown Code Enforcement

Today I’m going to focus on another important “player” in the off-campus housing issue –  Morgantown’s Code Enforcement Division.

What is code enforcement and what does it do?

The code enforcement division is made up of inspectors who check rental properties to make sure they are up to the city’s code.

Morgantown, West Virginia has more than 7,600 registered rental units and between 3,000 to 3,500 landlords. You can find a complete list of all rental units registered with the city here.

Morgantown’s Code Enforcement Division is supposed to inspect each of the city’s thousands of rental units once every three years.

Once a landlord is registered with the city, he/she must make an appointment with the code enforcement office to have all units inspected. The landlord must pay $25 per unit for an inspection. If the landlord doesn’t make an initial appointment, or an appointment within 30 days of the previous letter of compliance expiring, then the code enforcement office will schedule an appointment for the units.

What do Code Enforcement officers look for during inspections?

Code enforcement checks housing for safety issues. The biggest code violation is smoke detectors, according to Chief Inspector Mike Stone. Stone said that every time an officer comes back from an inspection, there’s always a smoke detector violation on the form.

There are four main problems with smoke detectors:

  1. Batteries in smoke detector are dead
  2. Batteries were removed from smoke detector
  3. A plastic bag has been placed over the detector
  4. There is no smoke detector where one is required

The first three issues are the tenants’ responsibility. If they don’t keep working batteries in the smoke detector, they could be fined $500. Also, some tenants place a plastic bag over the detector to prevent it from going off when smoking or cooking, according to Stone.

A landlord can be fined for not having smoke detectors in the proper places. All bedrooms must have a smoke detector, and one must be present outside of the bedrooms. They are not necessary in a kitchen unless the kitchen is the room right outside of the bedroom. Each floor must have at least one smoke detector. If a smoke detector is in a room that it’s not required to be in, it still must have working batteries, and that is the tenant’s responsibility.

Officers look at other safety issues, such as electrical wiring (Is the wiring done properly? Are wires frayed?), extension cords (these should not be overloaded with numerous items) and exits (exits should not be obstructed).

What happens after the inspection?

After the first inspection, the landlord and tenants have three weeks to fix any problems – it depends on whose responsibility it is. After three weeks, a code enforcement officer returns to see if the violations have been fixed. If not, then the landlord or tenant can be taken to court.

When are code enforcement cases heard?

Code enforcement officers are in court every Tuesday from 8 a.m. until noon, and every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

In the future, I plan to attend at least one of these court hearings and take notes to report on how they typically work.