Fire inspections data

An ounce of prevention 

Norfolk Fire-Rescue stops fires

For the last 150 years, Norfolk Fire-Rescue's dedicated team of firefighters and paramedics has worked to extinguish fires and provide emergency medical aid to Norfolk residents.
This highly visible work comes with recognizable imagery: the greedy flames in the picture above; billowing smoke; bright red trucks with loud sirens and flashing lights, firefighters in heavy, flame-resistant gear.
But the work of stopping fires begins long before a spark, sometimes invisibly. Norfolk Fire-Rescue deploys a 15-person team of fire inspectors whose mission includes prevention. Businesses in Norfolk undergo inspections for adherence to the state fire prevention code. Inspectors look for extinguishers and lighted exit signs as well as extension cords, hood ventilation systems and whether building exits are easily accessible.
This effort is designed to prevent fires, as well as to increase the likelihood of survival should a blaze occur.

Fire inspections data here, now

This fire inspections data is now available to all as part of Norfolk Open Data, the free, easy-to-use source for all kinds of data collected and used by the City of Norfolk.
This data represents Norfolk Fire-Rescue's around the clock efforts to ensure fire code enforcement, said Battalion Chief Nick Nelson. The codes represent thousands of pages of information. 
"We are a very small unit of folks trying to ensure residents' safety," Nelson said. "Literally seven days a week investigators and inspectors are out there on the street."

A little about what's in this data

  • This dataset includes seven years of information on fire inspections in Norfolk, updated daily on weekdays. This data is downloaded from Firehouse, a system of record used by Fire-Rescue. 
  • Hospitals, nursing homes, child care centers and restaurants that may serve a large number of people are among the businesses that undergo a fire safety inspection, as well as food trucks. You can search for your favorite restaurant or your child's school.
  • This dataset shows inspections, violations, and re-inspections. Some inspections have multiple violations, and some violations have multiple reinspection. Over seven years, there have been 32,686 inspections and 32,575 violations. That's about 4,669 inspections per year!

"They don't think about that exit until they need an exit."
- Battalion Chief Nick Nelson

Fire safety protections such as lighted exit signs and extinguishers are now commonplace. Nearly all of the measures enforced by Norfolk's Fire Inspectors today grew from lessons learned after tragedy.
Image from Wikipedia
image by Joe Webster, Wikipedia

Triangle Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, fire broke out on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a garment factory in Manhattan. The building's single fire escape collapsed under the weight of fleeing workers. Others, many young women, were trapped at fire exits locked by managers to prevent theft. The fire remains one of the largest industrial disasters in American history, killing 146 people.

Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire

Blocked exits, faulty wiring, poor construction with combustible materials, lack of alarms or sprinklers and overcrowding were among the safety issues that contributed to the deaths of 165 people in a fire that ravaged this popular Kentucky nightclub in 1977.

Station Nightclub Fire

Pyrotechnics used during a performance by the band Great White ignited polyurethane foam in the walls and ceiling of the Station Nightclub in Warwick, Rhode Island, on February 20, 2003. The blaze quickly spread throughout the club, blocking exits and trapping patrons inside. There were no automatic fire sprinklers. 100 people died.  
Norfolk has not been immune to fire tragedies. Battalion Chief Nelson pointed to the May 1995 Fine Petroleum fire, which burned a two-story petroleum warehouse and sent plumes of toxic smoke and ash into the air. In October 1989, fire killed 12 people and injured dozens more including firefighters at the Hillhaven Rehabilitation and Convalescent Home on Hampton Boulevard. 
"Large fire incidents have changed the way fire inspections and codes have evolved," Nelson said. Fire safety may not be the first thing a restaurant patron thinks of upon sitting down to eat. That's because fire inspectors have already been to the business to think of it first. "From a patron's perspective it's a sense of reassurance," Nelson said. "They go in and they know the restaurant is following the rules. They're not blocking exits. If an emergency does break out they can access the electrical panels easily. An ounce of prevention goes a long way."

Most common fire code violations

Blocked egress is one of the most common violations fire inspectors encounter. It's also one of the most serious -- as demonstrated in the examples of tragedy above, loss of life occurs when people cannot find their way out of a building that's on fire.
Business that are tight on space sometimes try to find it near emergency exists, Nelson said.
"That's something that's immediately fixed," Nelson said. "We do not allow the business to stay open."

Expired extinguishers

Improperly cleaned vents

Fire extinguishers expire -- they have to be inspected every year. Fire code also requires specific numbers of extinguishers at specific intervals. Inspectors also review and assess fire suppression systems.
Hoods and ventilation systems exhaust grease and heat from cooking areas and kitchens. Dirty or poorly maintained systems can cause fires. 

Exit signs and routes

A lighted exit sign points the way to escape -- a building's exits are one of its most important safety features. Fire codes have many exit requirements, including signs, location, maximum travel distance, and number per occupants. Inspectors ensure routes to exits are clearly marked and unobstructed. 

Food trucks

Food trucks have generators, fuel tanks, cooking elements like griddles or grills -- lots of hot, flammable material in a tight space.
"When we have big festivals, every single one of those food vendors get inspected by the fire marshal's office," said Chief Garry Windley. "These guys are everywhere. They're just behind the scenes."

"We want to be proactive rather than reactive."
- Garry Windley, Assistant Fire Chief

Common violations

Some sections of the fire code allow inspectors room to decipher the intent of the law. For example, said Fire Inspector Adam Gwynn, the "General Requirements" section discusses topics including indoor displays, hazards to firefighters, indoor or outdoor open flames, smoking and food trucks.
"Unapproved conditions" allows fire inspectors to seek correction of conditions deemed unsafe.
This and the following charts were created from this dataset using PowerBI, a powerful data analysis software.

Inspections and violations

The number of inspections varies by year. In 2019, Norfolk Fire-Rescue was able to deploy five part time staff who helped to complete more inspections.

Inspections by property type

The majority of inspections occur in restaurants or cafeterias, followed by one or two family homes and businesses for car or boat sales. Fire marshals also inspect bars and nightclubs, schools, hotels and motels and convenience stores.

Data on many kinds of violations is available here in Norfolk Open Data.

Education is a firefighter's first line of defense, Nelson said. Inspectors work with businesses to ensure owners and employees understand why the code exists, and their role in ensuring the safety of their patrons. 
For example, Nelson said, some hotels used to feature giant hose boxes mounted in corridors. His authority includes allowing hotels to remove those boxes and mount an extinguisher.
"It's much more user friendly," Nelson said. "Sometimes we make modifications to the code working with the businesses to continue to have an element of safety."
However, compliance with the code is not optional. Fire inspectors are law enforcement officers who wear badges and have arrest authority. In addition to inspecting businesses, they also interview witnesses and gather evidence in cases of suspected arson or code violations that lead to fires. These inspectors also serve as members of Norfolk's Bar Task Force and other multi-department task forces.


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Meet the team

The mission of the Norfolk Fire Marshal's Office (FMO) is to prevent harm and work to ensure safe communities with the City of Norfolk. The FMO consists of a dedicated group of men and women who are cross trained in the disciplines of fire safety inspections, as well as fire and explosive incident investigation cause and origin. Members of the FMO have full law enforcement powers.
The FMO engages in the protection of the environment, and also takes a lead role in a task force concept to address concerns within the community. Task force activities include: the Bar Task Force; the Convenience Store Task Force; the Hotel / Motel Task Force and other joint efforts with police, code enforcement and health department officials within the City of Norfolk.
In addition, the FMO partners with Norfolk Police to staff a joint bomb team for the City of Norfolk.

Making history

Norfolk Fire-Rescue has been making history for 150 years, and it's not done yet. 
Nationally, women make up only 4% of all career firefighters, but Norfolk Fire-Rescue passes the national average with 9.4% of members who are women. These women hope to inspire others to be willing to take on new challenges. 

We are so glad you're here! 

Feel free to view, download and analyze this data. We provide this data as an affirmation of our commitment to transparency and community collaboration. We hope that you will use this data to improve your community, spark a business idea or just satisfy your curiosity.  Data will be updated and expanded often as we work to build a comprehensive open data portal.
Questions? Please contact us at 664-4007 or email