Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

TOP STORY >>Inspectors focusing

By HEATHER HARTSELL
Leader staff writer

The House Education Committee discussed a bill last week that would protect public school buildings from fire hazards and ensure regular fire inspections for all public school buildings in Arkansas. If passed, it would place accountability for inspections on local fire departments, which local departments until now have shared with schools. Cabot Fire Chief Phil Robinson said the Cabot School District is cooperative in the inspection process, sending a courtesy letter when inspections near.

“They send a letter to request the inspection, and we send reports of the completed inspection back,” Robinson said. “All 12 schools in the district, the A.C.E. campus (Academic Center of Excellence) and even some daycares are inspected,” he said.
In Beebe, Fire Chief William Nick said he prefers the school calling when an inspection is near.

“We’re not full-time, so it would be easier for us with inspections if they call, but we have it on our calendar,” Nick said.
Sherwood Fire Chief Mark Mahan said he had read a little bit about the House bill, but that if the bill is passed, the fire de-partments also need the ability to enforce their findings.

“There needs to be something that gives us leeway and ability to enforce our findings, the authority to hold the school responsible for correcting things,” Mahan said. “We can make suggestions all day long, but it does no good to make suggestions if they don’t listen to them,” he added.

Arkansas law requires schools to be inspected twice a year, at least seven days before Christmas break begins and at least seven days before the end of the school year for the district. The four schools that comprise the Lonoke Public School District are inspected bi-annually by the Lonoke Fire Department, the only district inspected by a volunteer fire department.
Of the local PCSSD schools, six receive their bi-annual inspection by the Sherwood Fire Department and the Jacksonville Fire Department inspects 12.

Mahan said his department inspects Sherwood schools three times a year. “Anytime the schools are closed for a week or more, we go in and inspect them before students come back,” Mahan said. A common oversight found in school inspections involves fire extinguishers with out-of-date tags, improper use of extension cords and egress clutter. In his one-and-a-half year tenure, Robinson has found no major violations with Cabot schools.

Mike Williams, the new Jacksonville fire marshal, said no major infractions were uncovered recently and that Jacksonville area schools are safe. Mahan said the main problem his department sees at schools in Sherwood is neatness, or rather the lack of it.

“They are bad about storing cleaners and mops in electrical closets, where the breaker boxes and electrical circuits are,” Mahan said, adding, “that’s an easy fix though, they can fix that in five minutes.” Nick said Beebe schools do a good job during inspections and that there are not many things that they have to go back about.

Sharron Havens, superintendent of Lonoke schools, said during their last school inspection, which occurred Sept. 7, 2006, the fire department commented on the number of items in classrooms. “There is a comment in our report that some teachers have too much stuff in areas of their room,” Havens said.

That ‘too much stuff’ would best be described as classroom decorations that pose as combustible hazards in the room – flammable things hanging from the ceiling or too much on the walls that would feed a fire. Sprinkler systems
Most schools in the Pulaski County , Cabot, Beebe and Lonoke districts were built when building codes did not require sprinkler systems.

Williams said none of the Jacksonville public school buildings have a sprinkler system, which could save lives and property if a fire breaks out. “A lot of lives and property have been saved because of them,” Williams said.In Beebe, the newer school structures have sprinkler systems, the auditorium has sprinklers over the stage, and all school kitchens have sprinklers, but not all the schools, Nick said.

“It would be expensive for the district to install sprinklers in the schools that don’t have them, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to do,” Nick said. Sprinkler systems can cost upwards of $250,000 to install, depending on the size of the building. Mahan said there were not very many schools in his area that have sprinkler systems;
“there may be one in the system,” he said.
Only the new $7.5 million Lonoke Middle School that opened in February has sprinkler systems.

In Cabot, Robinson said only the new part of the high school has sprinklers. “None of the grade schools, junior highs or middle schools have sprinklers,” he said. Cabot lost its $9 million Cabot Junior High North building last August after a malfunction inside a fluorescent bulb caught the ceiling on fire inside a media center storage closet.

The fire spread through the 8-year-old building, which had no sprinkler system, after getting into the attic. At the time, Chief Robinson said he didn’t know if sprinklers would have helped the school because the attics are not usually sprinkled.
But upon further research, Robinson told The Leader that if CJHN had installed sprinklers, the outcome might have been different.

“If the school had installed sprinklers at that point in time, the sprinkler heads were required to be mounted in the attic, so sprinklers would have made a huge difference, if they were installed correctly,” Robinson said. By law, local school structures met all requirements of existing building codes at the time they were built.

Current code for school structures requires a sprinkler system throughout the building for buildings larger than 20,000 square feet, Jacksonville’s Williams said. Today’s code also requires no wooden trusses used for roof construction.
Cabot’s new $6.6 million Stagecoach Elementary will have a metal roof and a sprinkler system throughout its 83,313 square feet.

The 30 portable trailers that were brought in to house students after the CJHN fire were placed with emergencies in mind.
Robinson said the clearance between and around the trailers is enough to allow a fire truck through; an extra road was also built around the trailers to get the truck through. Other precautions at the trailer campus include second doors added for egress, all trailers alarmed with fire detection and notification, and all have fire alarms.

“The building large enough to allow sprinklers has a sprinkler system too,” Robinson said.