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Richmond fire chief touts inspection improvement

A person wearing a uniform and glasses stands and a microphone and signals to people behind him
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Melvin Carter gives a presentation to the Richmond City Council Public Safety Standing Committee meeting on Tuesday, April 25, 2023 at City Hall in Richmond, Virginia.

Melvin Carter says all Richmond public schools were cleared of fire code violations.

Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter told members of City Council’s Public Safety Standing Committee on Tuesday that the fire department inspected every Richmond public school for the current academic year and verified that all noted code violations were corrected.

Last week, VPM News published an investigation that focused, in part, on RFD’s failure to document annual inspections for every school building as required by state law. From 2015 through 2022, RFD documented only about 60% of required annual inspections.

Carter said RFD made changes following a 2021 city audit of the department’s inspection protocol, which was ordered by Carter. He said those changes have improved the department’s inspection rate and increased communication between RFD and Richmond Public Schools.

“I will tell you one hundred and fifty percent, the relationship is stronger, better and definitely more resilient,” Carter said. “It shouldn’t have taken these years to get where we are. But we’re here now.”

According to Carter, RPS and RFD now meet monthly to discuss maintenance issues. He praised the school district for acting more quickly than in the past to resolve fire hazards, highlighting the work of RPS Facilities Director Bobby Hathaway and Fire Capt. William Spindle.

“RPS isn’t here, but I will tell you that they lean forward now,” Carter said. “Bobby Hathaway will reach out to Captain Spindle to inform us of anything that’s going on that we need to be aware of and to proactively address those issues.”

Councilmember Kristen Nye thanked Carter for his work in ensuring school inspections occur and asked if the changes were incorporated into department policy. She said she wanted to verify improvements wouldn’t revert if Carter left the department.

“I assure you, we have taken measures that are legacy in nature. That independent of me or any other fire chief that stands here, we’ll continue to collaborate with RPS … It’s not Mel Carter–dependent. It’s not ‘anybody over here wearing one of these white shirts’–dependent,” Carter said, referencing RFD’s uniforms.

Carter said the department began making changes in 2020 to increase the number of inspections it conducted by reassigning staff as inspectors. But, after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, over half of the city’s fire marshal's office had to be assigned back to emergency response to cover staff shortages.

That had a “cascading effect” on RFD’s ability to inspect schools, Carter said. He noted that some schools were not inspected in 2021 and that more than half of schools did not receive proper follow-ups that year.

But as staffing issues have waned, the department increased its inspection rate. Carter said though the department inspected and cleared every Richmond public school of fire code violations for the current academic year, new staff is being brought on to expand RFD’s ability to conduct inspections.

“The city is growing. Our call volume, our inspection volume, it’s all increasing,” Carter said. “While we aren’t fully staffed in that area, we have been given the green light to make sure that we hire the staff up to support that.”

Fire officials previously told VPM News that city fire inspectors are responsible for inspecting over 10,000 properties.

Following the William F. Fox Elementary School fire in February 2022, VPM News obtained and analyzed all available fire inspection records for Richmond’s public schools from 2015–2022. Read Unchecked: Inside RPS fire inspections to see the results.

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.