School Fire Safety Reports

October 1, 2008 5:50:51 PM PDT
Every public school is inspected twice a year. According to fire inspection reports, some schools pass the test. Others have reoccurring problems that a top fire safety official thinks could turn a small school fire into a tragedy.

Eastern Guilford High School burst into flames nearly two years ago after a fire started in a chemistry lab. Fire destroyed the entire school.

"It does happen in our public schools, even in North Carolina," says Richard Strickland. He's with the State Fire Marshall's office and says last year in North Carolina there were 158 fires in public schools. He's been doing school fire safety inspections for 30 years.

"When mom and dad trust their children into a school environment they're expecting their children to be in a safe environment," says Strickland.

But, as we discovered during our investigation, that environment is not always as safe as it should be.

At Wake Forest- Rolesville High School there were a long list of violations including locked exit doors, a door that wouldn't open at all, and three empty fire extinguishers. One of those extinguishers was used by a teacher to put out a fire nine months earlier.

"Just think if that scenario occurred again and you had another fire in that same trashcan," says Strickland, continuing, "That teacher wouldn't be able to extinguish that fire."

Strickland says the state is especially concerned about fire safety violations in elementary schools.

    Richard Strickland: Children under age 12 are most vulnerable to lose their life when fire occurs in any building.

    Steve Daniels: Are they more at risk because they don't know how to get out?

    Richard Strickland: They're just not aware and may not be able to respond appropriately when a fire occurs.
Our inspection reports reveal a lot of violations inside elementary schools. There were broken smoke detectors at Y.E. Smith Elementary and Forest View Elementary in Durham . Exit windows were blocked at 19 Wake County elementary schools, two schools in Durham and two in Fayetteville.
    Steve Daniels: We saw a lot of examples of blocked corridors, corridors where people couldn't get out.

    Richard Strickland: That's your life safety element of the school, you want to make sure those corridors are clear. You have to think about the fact of, can a seven year old child open this door?
At schools in Wake, Durham and Cumberland counties, inspection reports reveal broken exit signs and broken emergency lighting.
    Richard Strickland: Even in the daytime, when a building fills with smoke you need emergency lighting to light that corridor.

    Steve Daniels: When there's smoke it's obviously very difficult to see.

    Richard Strickland: Very difficult, very difficult, Steve.

    Steve Daniels: Hard to find the doors.

    Richard Strickland: Very difficult.
Across Wake County, overcrowding is forcing schools to convert unusual areas into classrooms. Last year, Eyewitness News showed you how Davis Drive Elementary planned to convert a bathroom into a classroom.

"We thought if we just put a screen in front of the commode, that would block that from view and would still have a large area for instruction," says Principal Pat Andrews.

This type of creativity is leading to fire code violations at elementary schools like Weatherstone, Davis Drive, Lincoln Heights, Holly Ridge, Bugg, Forest Pines and high schools like Broughton.

    Steve Daniels: It doesn't matter to the fire inspector, that the school is overcrowded.

    Richard Strickland: No, his goal when he's inspecting that school, is to make certain that school is safe for the students that are in that classroom.
In Fayetteville, we found many schools had no fire safety violations at all and some of those that did were threatened with hefty fines if the problems weren't fixed.
    Steve Daniels: That sounds like putting some teeth behind this written report.

    Richard Strickland: Obviously someone in Cumberland County fire marshal's office has made that decision.

In Wake County, fire inspectors might need to do the same thing. At Lufkin Road Middle School, a blocked exit hallway has been written up ten times. Inspection reports reveal it has been blocked during the past nine years. When we went to see the problem for ourselves, the hallway still had trash cans, carts and other cleaning supplies in it. But, we're told it's better than before. Lufkin Road's principal says he doesn't know why it took so long to fix. "Unfortunately I can't give you that answer because I've only been here for about a month and a half at this school," says the principal, Dr. Perry Graham. He continued, "I don't know why it hasn't been, I'm just glad that we've taken care of it at this point."

    Steve Daniels: Do parents have a right to know about this?

    Richard Strickland: They do have a right to know, yes.

    Steve Daniels: We have restaurant inspections available in any restaurant we go in, can schools have a fire safety grade posted as well?

    Richard Strickland: When you have more eyes on an issue, obviously there's greater awareness and would probably help everyone police the problems.

A selection of inspection reports and what the school systems had to say about our findings are linked throughout this article.

School District Statements

Wake:

Following each fire inspection of a Wake County Public School, at least two reports are generated which we take very seriously. The first copy is given to the principal, the second is sent to our facilities and maintenance department. From there, work orders are generated and the violations regardless of whether technical or substantial in nature, concerns raised are addressed.

In addition, the Wake County Public School System and the Fire Marshall's Office have been in discussions for improving both formal and informal communication processes to ensure the safety of all of our students and faculty.

Durham:

"Durham Public Schools takes safety of our students and staff members very seriously. Our facilities are inspected throughout the year in multiple ways. Any items found in reports of the Fire Marshal or other self inspections are given the highest priority for immediate repair or correction. DPS conducts routine inspections of all of our fire safety prevention devices and measures on a continual basis."

Cumberland:

The simple answer is that "safety as a priority" is part of our culture. We have a professional, working relationship with the fire inspectors. We agree that safety regulations are in place for a reason. Fire marshals do a good job of indicating where we need to improve. Our Safety Office does a thorough follow up to anything that should be addressed. The principals take their role seriously. Everyone in the community works to keep our students and employees safe."

---Tim Kinlaw, Associate Superintendent of Auxiliary Services

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