From Cary to Bangladesh: Fire-code inspector takes his skills overseas

akenney@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

— Don Ayscue’s jurisdiction usually is limited to Cary, where he’s senior fire-code inspector. A chance meeting at a hotel swimming pool, however, has added the country of Bangladesh to his beat.

Ayscue, 49, has flown three times this year to Bangladesh, where he has become something of a representative for American safety standards.

The unlikely professional turn began during a vacation to Costa Rica, where Ayscue met an owner of a major garment supplier for Target stores. The British man and the North Carolina native fell into conversation about work – and suddenly Ayscue had an invitation to Bangladesh, a country between Myanmar and India.

Max White had for years been planning a new factory in the country, which is popular with garment manufacturers in part for its low wages.

A horrific, deadly factory fire that November underlined the country’s lax safety standards, as did the factory collapse that killed more than 1,000 people this year – but White says he had long planned and pushed for better protections in the factories his company hired out.

And in Ayscue, sitting there by a pool in Costa Rica, he saw a willing expert.

“We had gone to a couple U.S. companies, approached two fire departments in New Jersey, and a New York City fire consulting company,” White said. “They didn’t know what we were talking about. Nobody was willing to go.”

Ayscue made his first, 10-day trip to Bangladesh in January, then a second, weeklong trip in July, receiving compensation for both. He toured about 10 existing factories, including several where World Wide produces Target’s Mossimo Supply Co. and Merona brands.

“Little did I know, it’s more interesting than you think when you go to a third-world country that has not many laws and safety features being enforced,” Ayscue said.

To a man who has worked in Cary’s fire department for 20 years, the flaws in many of the factories’ designs were almost shocking.

“It’s obvious. Look at the stairwells – they’re wide open, so if any fire happens on that factory floor, it’s a chimney effect,” he said.

In most cases, he said, the factories lacked sprinklers, and in some cases crucial pathways were obstructed to prevent theft.

“Once you see it, and you see the people in the factories, you know it has to come from the buyers and the retailers,” he said.

That’s why White sought a fire inspector as he helped lay out a 10-story factory. With plans to take up about 85 percent of the Sepal Group factory’s production, World Wide had enough leverage to bring in high safety standards, White said.

“When you do quality control … you should hire an inspector, rather than hire somebody who has an adversarial attitude with an inspector,” he said.

White had Ayscue make design changes to the new factory. Among several items, he chose and sourced 51 fireproof doors from China and suggested installing fluorescent exit signs.

The Sepal Group building has interconnected fire alarms, sprinklers and encapsulated stairwells – items that are rare in Bangladesh.

This month, Ayscue led a tour of the partially completed facility for a group of international visitors. And with new construction on the horizon for White’s company and Bangladesh in general, the work could keep coming.

“Anything’s always on the table, but I have a lot invested in the town,” Ayscue said. To move him abroad, “it would take a lot.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608

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