Crews called to warehouse over broken sprinkler system days before fire

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HIGH POINT, N.C. -- High Point Fire Chief Thomas Reid tells FOX8 crews were called to the old Myrtle Desk Furniture Company building two days before the fire broke out there Monday night.

Chief Reid said firefighters responded to problems with a broken sprinkler system and told the owners to get the problem corrected.

He said it's hard to tell if the incident was connected to the fire because investigators have not determined a cause yet.

A firefighter was injured working the active structure fire. Chief Reid said the man was doing fine and would only be out of work for a couple of days.

DH Griffin crews were working to stabilize and tear down parts of the building as needed Wednesday afternoon so fire inspectors could continue their investigation into what caused the fire.

Crews were still putting out hot spots at the building on Taylor Avenue Wednesday.

Captain Damon Tobin with the High Point Fire Department said occupied buildings are inspected every three years. If a building is vacant, it is inspected annually.

"Somebody’s always in there at least once a year to check to see if there’s anybody in there or make sure there's no illegal activity going on. So they’re kept up on a regular basis," Captain Tobin explained.

The challenge of keeping up with unoccupied buildings is not isolated to High Point.

The decline of the furniture industry in the region left empty buildings throughout Thomasville, too.

"Due to the economy, we have more than we would like to have," said City of Thomasville Fire Marshal Rocky Watts.

Watts said empty or not, all buildings are supposed to be maintained in compliance with state fire code. But it's often easier said than done.

Watts pointed out the challenge of getting access to vacant building properties, saying, "Business owners do not like to call you back or contact you back, give you permission to go on, or you have to set up appointments to get in these complexes. That’s not always easy."

He also said buildings they initially believe to be empty may unknowingly be used as a storage location for other companies.

Depending on what materials are being stored, it could put the facility at risk for a fire.

One tool fire departments use in many cities, including High Point and Thomasville, is a pre-planning computer program.

Acting Fire Chief of Thomasville Don Crafford said battalion chiefs can take a laptop to the scene of a fire and pull up helpful information about the building.

"Electrical panels, sprinkler system connections. So this just gives them a diagram they can look at on the scene," said Crafford.

The system has been up and running for four years in Thomasville and now has information for 1,500 businesses and buildings including maps, owner contact information, and whether the building is occupied.

It's all helpful for determining whether to risk entering a building on fire.

"You risk a lot to save a lot," Crafford added. "But a vacant building is not worth the life of a firefighter."

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