|Problems still exist with school
By Thomas M. Cunningham
WTC Staff writer
We are in the midst of a new school year. Our children and those of neighbors and friends set out in the morning for school. A day full of learning and social interaction with others, but, is your children safe? Some schools during the year may experience random acts of violence, such as shootings, stabbings, and physical attacks perpetrated by fellow students. But in the real world many of these schools have more severe problems. Problems that are severe enough that more lives could be lost in a single incident than those from multiple acts of violence.
Ask yourself one question, does the school that your child attends, have violations of the Life Safety Code? If yes, then you should be really concerned, especially if you are a member of the emergency services community. What good is a fully sprinklered education facility if the central alarm panel is inoperatable? What good are evacuation horns or strobe lights if they never activate? What good is panic hardware on doors if they are broke or even scarier, if they are deliberately chained shut?
If the parents of students attending Columbine high school knew beforehand what would transpire on that fateful day of April 20, 1999, would they have allowed their children to attend school? Many schools in our nation pose the same threat to our children’s lives on a daily basis, even more dangerous than the Columbine high rampage. When was the last time you inquired of the schools administration about any fire or life safety violations that they may or have experienced? Do we attend parent meetings to find out if deficiencies exist, or do we attend them at all? Yes, its hard to believe that some of our children’s schools are possible firetraps, and to deny that they are, then you must not know how local governments, supervisory management, accountability and budgeting work. In order to meet the demands of teachers unions and pay the increase in teacher’s salaries, (which the teachers obviously care more about than the quality of education that our children receive), some corners must be cut, and it is obvious, that one of those corners is fire and life safety requirements.
In a resent article from Oklahoma, the city fire marshal and the city public schools have agreed on a six year $2.7 million dollar deal to bring the schools up to code. In Oklahoma City only a dozen schools currently meet the required fire codes. Less than a dozen have active and passive fire suppression, detection and notification systems. 88% of the schools require upgrades, and buildings that are multi-story, with younger and handicapped students, partial alarm systems, and limited access to fire suppression forces will get the upgrade first. Wow, now does that scare you?
Oh, it is in Oklahoma, not my neighborhood, right? Think again. This could be any school that our children attend.
In news article released in November 2000 a figure showed that fires in schools causes about $15.9 million per year. The figure has grown since the 1995-96 figures were released showing only &7.5 million in damage. There are approximately 8,200 school fires a year in the United States. An average of 190 children are killed or injured, every year in these fires. These numbers are comparable with the ford/firestone number. So far 200 people have died and another 200 have been injured due to tire failure. We have seen the public outrage over this, and the news media has gone full tilt on this story, but what about public outrage and media coverage about the kids that are either killed or injured as a result of fire at schools?
On December first of 1958 “A great and indescribable horror” transpired in a Chicago school. Fire in a Catholic elementary school would change how life safety, fire detection and suppression issues were viewed in our schools. The “Our Lady of the Angels” fire killed 90 students and three nuns. Two other students would die some months later due to complications from burns bring the total to 92 students. One hundred and sixty children were saved that day. A shockwave was sent across the nation and throughout local school boards as word spread of the children’s deaths. Back then people were in disbelief about how a fire could spread so quickly and take so many young children. Even today that disbelief still exist among the survivors. The reality is that it did, and this event changed many people’s lives forever. Could “Murphy’s Law”, cause the same incident today? Quite possibly, if all the right factors were in place as they were on that fateful day in Chicago.
In a recent article published on 8/24/2001, the State of Illinois has introduced House Bill 854. HB 854 will reduce the level of fire safety requirements in two Illinois school districts. This bill allows both districts to bypass a law requiring installation of fire sprinkler systems into any newly constructed or renovated schools that is over fifty percent of total current square footage. A 31-year veteran Thomas O’ Connell (Ret) of the Chicago Fire Department states “It is outrages that the safety of Illinois school children be compromised to satisfy the self-serving, political whims of two school districts”. Can you imagine that the most recent and greatest loss of life in a school fire happened in this state, and now some are attempting to repeal established fire and life safety standards? Can someone please have the heads examined of any politician who votes “yea” on a bill that would place a child’s life in danger. Better yet vote them out of office in the next election, hopefully an ex-firefighter will run against them.
Recently in New York City, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi concluded a four-month audit of the cities public school system. The report found that thousands of students have been going to school in firetraps. 20 of the 31 elementary schools that were inspected had violations of the fire codes. 20 had exit doors that were padlocked, hallway doors that were stuck, obstructed exits, and fire alarm systems that were dead. It seems that school administrators must become educated about life safety factors concerning exiting, exit access, and exit egress. The audit found that doors that padlocked would not allow for exit egress. The Chancellor of schools Harold Levy had ordered that 690 elementary, middle and high schools undergo inspection. The inspections uncovered 100 schools with defective exit doors and many more hallway and stairwell doors in need of repair. Mr. Levy has sent written warning to school managers that these matters need constant vigilance.
The Hevesi audit also found:
On October 6, 1998 in Chicago, during the inspection of 19 schools it was discovered that many schools not only had fire violations, but also health issues as well. The total bill to correct the problems found during the inspections would cost $6 million dollars.
But what does this have to do with my kids, their school, or me? Plenty. This stuff not only happens in big cities, but also suburbia as well.
On Sunday 08/05/2001, a report in the Denver Post noted that the fire department found life safety code deficiencies during inspection of the schools. These infractions were the noted during the inspections:
A fire at the East High school in
Denver could have been prevented had
During the fire department inspections of the schools, fire personnel found fire alarm panels and manual pull stations missing, outdated fire extinguishers, untested sprinkler systems, and fire alarms that never sounded during testing. Principals were also placing fire alarm panels out of service after repeated evacuations of the schools had taken place. This was due to faults within the fire alarm system. Some schools had dozens of violation while others had none. One school was also found to having gasoline stored in the basement, this was the principal’s third violation notice for the same deficiency. The records showed the administrators who were issued violation notices failed to correct the noted deficiencies. This could be the definition of liability in the encyclopedia. But in some of these facilities these same problems were noted year after year. The minor violations were usually shrugged off. Even fires within the schools were not reported. Remember that every time a principle chains an exit door shut it has moved from being a security precaution to a life safety hazard.
Administrators state that there are more maintenance related problems due to the average age of a school in Denver being 50 years old. That may be a problem, but the schools have also failed to have an average of one fire drill a month, which has nothing to do with the age of any building. What is evident here is a total lack of responsibility. The superintendent of schools in Denver has said that the schools will comply with the fire code requirements, but hoped that the fire department would be open to discussing the fire drill requirement. Seeing that 40% of children in fourth grade cannot read in this nation, I don’t think that one fire drill a month would distract them from learning.
Many fire code violations in the
nation do go uncorrected for years even after being cited multiple times.
The principal’s excuse was there was nothing that they could do, or fire
inspectors, the school district, and principals could not agree on what
to do. This is really a no-brainer, correct them fix the problems.
Many fire inspectors were criticized for being too tough, or not tough enough and gave conflicting messages to the principals. This could possible be true. All inspectors take note, clearly present your findings and ensure that your message is received. Communications is the key. And the fact that records were lost does not help matters. Principals were unsure of their legal responsibility concerning fire safety in their schools. In a move that is sure to change certain principal’s perception about fire safety, Denver firefighters have ordered four principals into court in the past 18 months over violations of the fire code within their schools.
In early 2000, Denver fire chief Joseph Gonzales who heads the Division of prevention and investigation decided that complaints against these schools had gone too far. Gonzales began putting pressure on school principles to correct deficiencies. Written orders by the fire department demanded that artwork on walls must be limited. The code states that only 20% of the wall may be covered. If more was allowed than fire could spread into the ceiling area and above the drop ceilings that most schools have. One principal decided that removing artwork from walls could wait because it was not a priority. Many educators believe that fire regulations are worth ignoring, temporarily. Now you know why Johnny cannot read at four.
Denver Fire Chief Roderick Junel stated, “There is nothing insignificant about fire safety.” Especially when you need a fire extinguisher, when the fire alarm does not sound or a coke machine blocks your exit. Backers of the principles have rallied behind the schools administrators saying that they are already beleaguered with office duties and other assignments. Well I believe that the safety of my child comes before anything else. And as for school administrators being overworked I can sympathize with their plight. But they must also come to grips that providing a safety work and learning environment is also part of their jobs as well.
In order to gain the principal’s undivided intention the Denver Fire Department decided to take some of these administrators to task. Like the saying on the People’s Court,” Don’t take the law into your own hands, take them to court.” And this is just what the Denver fire department did. This was done to hold the principal’s personally liable for the violations of the fire safety codes. Principals from three public and one private school were all brought into court. The following are the facts regarding the charges and action taken by the court:
1. One principal was brought in due to “singed” paper that was found in a crawl space and failed to report it. In court he stated that because a fire truck had responded to the school that the engine company obviously knew about the fire. The charge was dismissed. Who cares if the charge was dismissed, but after the inconvenience of a court appearance, and news coverage about the appearance in court, I am willing to bet that any incidents of fire in that school will be reported and documented from now on.
2. The principal of East High School was brought to court from not reporting a fire. The fire department was later notified by a security guard that an incident occurred. The principal was also cited for shutting down the fire alarm system. For this the Department of Public Schools (DPS) pleaded guilty and was fined $999.00, which was suspended.
3. Another elementary school principal was charged with failing to report a minor fire that had started on a teacher’s desk and was extinguished using a glass of water. Now hold on, a desk just ignites by itself? This time DPS was fined $999.00, of which $799.00 was suspended.
4. Another principal was brought
in due to a faulty fire alarm system that caused too many false alarms
to be turned in. The cause was an overly sensitive smoke detector that
activated whenever a door close to the device was opened. The system was
undergoing upgrading at the time of the court appearance. The judge dropped
The bottom line here is, whether these school administrators like it or not the fire and life safety codes are in place for only one reason, to save lives. If it requires that they defend themselves and their actions in court, than so be it. I only wish that I could be complacent in my profession as these principals are in theirs. Kudos should go out to chief Gonzales for having the intestinal fortitude to take on a somewhat difficult establishment to deal with (department of education), and for doing what is right. Maybe the fire service needs to establish a class on fire codes and reporting of fire incidents at schools. Most schools since the Columbine incident now have “action plans” in order to deal with large scale matters and part of this training could include the fire safety regulations for schools. This could be done to give administrators a better understanding of what is required for them to do their part.
Looking back upon the “Our Lady of the Angels” fire we find that there were many discrepancies found at the school that contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.
To check on the condition of your child(s) school concerning fire violations, these are some tips to help in the retrieval of information:
As parents of school age children, and also as emergency service personnel, maybe we need to take an active role in ensuring that are children have a safe learning environment. If this cannot be done through bringing matters like this to the administrations attention, start putting pressure upon elected officials. If you are reading this you have a computer and are currently on the Internet. Your elected officials most likely have websites that receive e-mails from constituents. Write them and voice your concerns, and by all means don’t give up. Pressuring public officials will guarantee results. Especially if it is over fire safety in schools.
If more information is sought on
the “Our Lady of the Angels” fire, a book written in 1996 by David Cowen
and John Kuenster entitled “To sleep with the angels, the story of a fire”,
can still be bought through your local book retailer or online. This book
is a must for all fire officers, code enforcement personnel and anyone
seeking a further understanding of tragedy, implications of fire, and development
of fire codes.
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