State Fire Marshall, Insurance Commissioner visits Newton

Cody Dalton
Staff Writer

NEWTON, N.C. — State Fire Marshall Mike Causey, who also serves the commissioner for the North Carolina Department of Insurance, visited Catawba County last week, talking with local building inspectors about his 2.5 years so far in office.

Causey, who has served in his dual role since January 2017, spoke to a group that included Catawba County Chief Building Services Official Rick Frady, talking to them about the Department of Insurance and answering their questions.

“I’ve made official visits in all 100 counties since I’ve been sworn in in 2017. We’re now on our second round of county visits,” Causey said. “We meet with government officials, fire departments, insurance agencies, building inspectors, construction people and other groups that we regulate. Thursday morning, we were here in Newton for a meeting at the governmental center.”

As the chief building inspector for the state, Causey and his department regulate and oversee all engineering codes and the state building code council.

However, they do not control state construction.

“That’s a separate agency under the Governor’s office with the Department of Administration,” Causey said of state construction. “However, our office is charge of risk management for every piece of property the state owns. As insurance commissioner, I have overall responsibility for life safety of every public building.”

Causey has tried to implement change since he took office two and a half years ago, acquiring the help of several people from Catawba County, including hiring Cliff Isaac as his deputy commissioner of engineering to head up engineering in the state.

“He’s done a tremendous job in helping smooth things out with our building inspectors across the state,” Causey said of Isaac. “It’s good to have somebody that grew up around the construction business that understands what the companies and the home owners face as well as having enough time in state government to understand a little bit about how state government works.”

As State Fire Marshall, Causey oversees all fire departments, including fire fighter certifications and fire department inspections.

“A lot of people don’t realize North Carolina does more fire fighter certifications than any other agency in the world expect for the Department of Defense,” he said. “We have 54 different levels of fire fighter certification. We’ve put a focus on fire fighter safety and working with the fire departments in a positive way to help them with their ratings.”

Upon being sworn in, Causey was tasked with the issue of catching up on fire department inspections, hiring three more fire department inspectors to facilitate the issue.

“We had fire departments in North Carolina that haven’t been inspected in 25 years,” he said. “There was one in Craven County that it’d been 28 years since their last inspection.”

Causey has tried to use his department’s resources, which are self funded, to help alleviate several issues, including insurance fraud.

“When I took office, I wanted to know how bad insurance fraud was in North Carolina,” Causey said. “Every single day our department gets an average of 20 criminal complaints a day coming in the door. That’s about 400 to 500 a month and over 5,000 serious criminal complaints a year.”

In 2016, 20 law enforcement officers were assigned to cover insurance fraud cases in the 100 counties in North Carolina, according to Causey, and only 57 of those 100 counties made an arrest.

“Do you believe there’s 43 counties with no fraud or no arson? It’s simply that we didn’t have the people,” he said.

After working with state legislature about his department’s needs, Causey helped create 43 new positions in 2017, including three new attorneys, to work with prosecutors.

He also created a Fraud Control Group with separate divisions, which regulate everything from criminal investigations to bail bondsmen to legal prosecution to special services review.

“All of that has really come together in the past couple of years,” he said.

The number of fire department inspectors also grew from five to eight positions.

“That simple step of going from five people to eight people in the past year and a half has totally eliminated that backlog,” he said. “We’ve caught up all of those fire departments. We’ve gotten every fire department in this state (inspected) within a five or six year range. In a lot of counties — and Catawba is one — we’ve had a significant number of fire departments that have bettered their rating class.”

In the spring of 2018, a total of 25 new law enforcement officers, including another Catawba County native in Mark Hilton, were sworn in to help in insurance fraud cases, including arson.

As a result, the number of arrests in fraud cases has increased, and 93 of 100 counties in state of North Carolina have made an arrest for insurance fraud, according to Causey.

“In the past year, we’ve doubled our criminal investigation capability,” he said. “We’ve doubled the number of arrests in the past year. The number of these cases going through court is increasing. These folks have done tremendous things in just a short time.”

Now, Causey’s next push is making sure those in the state are educated about flood insurance, especially after Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina last fall.

Working with FEMA and several associations that include joint underwriters, real estate agents and insurance agents, Causey and his department have conducted town hall meetings across the state to educate people on the need for flood insurance.

The town halls for residents started earlier this year, and four-hour classes are also being offered for insurance and real estate agents, who will receive continuing education credits for attending the classes.

“It was just heartbreaking to see these people that lost everything,” he said. “They had no insurance. They had no flood insurance. They had to rely on charity to help them. What I learned through that Hurricane Florence experience was if it rains where you live, you need flood insurance.”