Cleveland Fire Officials Worry About Code Violations in Schools

April 11, 2007

Fire officials in Cleveland, Ohio, are concerned about children’s safety because the city’s schools are not always following fire codes.

At least eight Cleveland principals have been cited by the fire department in the past four years for not reporting small fires or failing to evacuate buildings following an alarm, The Plain Dealer reported. The newspaper’s review of fire inspection records for about 100 Cleveland schools found more than 350 violations during that period.

The problems included malfunctioning alarm systems, blocked escape routes and extension cords stretched across classrooms. Schools were cited 22 times for violations in science labs, and several buildings had chronically disabled extinguishing systems in their kitchens, where the U.S. Fire Administration reports a large number of school fires start.

“It really makes you shiver,” said Dan Burns, the school district’s chief operating officer.

At Collinwood High School, a fire in the science lab caused more than $500,000 in damage in 2001. School officials were cited just two years later for not having fire blankets or a chemical spill kit in the chemistry room.

Burns said Cleveland’s history should make fire safety a priority. A fire almost 100 years ago killed 172 students, two teachers and a rescue worker at a grammar school in the then-suburb of Collinwood.

That fire came up in a memo that a Cleveland fire captain sent to the chief two years ago, saying he was concerned that some principals were refusing to evacuate students if an alarm appeared false or a fire was minor.

“This situation is in dire need of attention in order to prevent history from repeating itself,” Capt. David Kebbel wrote. “I mean that we do not want to bear witness of another Collinwood School fire of 1908.”

Fire Chief Paul Stubbs and his commanders declined to be interviewed by The Plain Dealer, but the department released a statement saying it’s committed to working with the district to ensure children’s safety.

Under state and city law, schools are required to evacuate any time an alarm is set off or any sort of fire is discovered. But principals say they face a conflict between following fire regulations and keeping students in class and out of trouble when there are minor fires, such as a firecracker set off in a classroom or students throwing lit matches.

“It appears that complacency may be setting in,” Lt. Thomas McGinty said in a 2004 report written after a principal at South High School refused to empty the building following false alarms.

Charita Crockrom, the principal of John F. Kennedy High School, was cited for failing to report a trash can fire and evacuate the building in March 2006. She first said she had good reason not to call the fire department and evacuate over a “two-minute fire,” but later said she was in the wrong.

“What I learned is that I cannot be at odds with the rules because the rules are the rules,” she said.

Even though some fires turn out to be minor, school officials can’t be too cautious, said Robert Solomon of the National Fire Protection Association.

“I can sympathize with what the principals might be saying about not wanting to disrupt school,” Solomon said. “But in my world, it’s not a risk you want to be taking.”

The newspaper found no record that any of the principals cited suffered other consequences, such as fines. Three principals were reprimanded by the district for arguing with fire inspectors.

After seeing the violation records, Burns said the district will provide emergency money to correct problems and invest in cameras to record those tampering with fire alarms and causing other problems. He said the district will discipline principals who violate the fire code on purpose.

Information from: The Plain Dealer,

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