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Some fire code violations found in Washington County schools

July 07, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Damaged exit doors, items hanging from fire sprinklers and improper use of extension cords are just a few of the fire safety violations found in Washington County Public Schools buildings in the past two years.

Officials with the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office and the school system say they are committed to safety, and working together to correct violations.

Jason Mowbray, Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal, said the schools are safe, and that all schools will have "some violations because of the way they are set up" and the number of students, teachers, parents and volunteers in the buildings each day.

At least once each year, public schools in Washington County should be inspected by the Fire Marshal's Office, Mowbray said.

However, reports show that some county schools have not been inspected since 2006.

The inspections are unannounced, and are usually done between August and November. No schools have been inspected in 2008 for this reason.

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"It's fire and life safety hazards we are looking for," Mowbray said.

The inspections are mandated by the state because public schools receive state funding, he said.

Mowbray said the inspections are "very detailed," and inspectors go into classrooms, storage closets, kitchens, boiler rooms and other areas of the schools looking for possible safety hazards. Violations of the State Fire Prevention Code are recorded, and should be corrected in a timely manner, he said.

"Obviously, our first goal is to prevent violations, and our second is to resolve any problems immediately," said Steve Ganley, safety & security/risk manager for Washington County Public Schools. "That's the benefit of having the fire marshal do the yearly inspections. Violations are recognized and taken care of ... if by chance they would find a violation."

All schools had at least one violation during inspections conducted since 2006, records show.

Elementary schools

According to fire safety inspection data obtained by The Herald-Mail through a Freedom of Information Act request, one of the most common violations occurred in the county's elementary schools.

Reports show that many schools had combustible materials covering a larger percentage of their walls than is allowed.

In a building not outfitted with a sprinkler system, 20 percent of walls can be covered with combustible materials, like artwork and posters. In a sprinklered building, that amount increases to about half of the wall.

Most schools built after about 1980 have sprinkler systems.

Inspection reports since 2006 at Bester, Boonsboro, Cascade, Clear Spring, Eastern, Emma K. Doub, Fountaindale, Funkstown, Lincolnshire, Maugansville, Pangborn, Paramount, Potomac Heights, Sharpsburg, Smithsburg and Winter Street elementary schools include remarks about wall coverings.

"It can be challenging," Mowbray said.

Teachers want to promote the achievement of their students, especially younger children, by displaying art work, posters and papers on classroom walls.

"Unfortunately, the (papers) are combustible and produce heat and smoke," Mowbray said.

Ed Ernst, deputy state fire marshal, is one of two inspectors who checks for fire safety in the county's schools.

"We look at rooms, classrooms, inspect for wall coverage, make sure there's nothing hanging off the sprinkler heads in the classrooms," he said.

In March 2006, an inspection of Smithsburg Elementary School revealed that items were hanging from sprinklers in the school.

According to the report, an inspector wrote, "Do not suspend anything from sprinkler pipes! Ever!"

"Ever" was underlined twice.

Ernst and the other inspector use a form with about 40 possible violations listed as a guide for their inspections.

Middle schools

Another common violation found during those inspections was general clutter. With storage space at a minimum in some county schools, items are being stacked too close to the ceiling, or stored where they should not be, the reports state.

Reports since 2006 show that Springfield, Smithsburg and Boonsboro middle schools had violations related to storage or obstructed corridors and stairways.

"It seems like there is never enough storage," Mowbray said.

Western Heights, Springfield, Northern and Boonsboro middle schools have not been inspected since 2006, according to reports. Other middle schools show inspections in 2007.

When Western Heights Middle School was last inspected in January 2006, it had no violations, according to a report.

When Springfield Middle was last inspected in October 2006, it received a second notice to "provide quarterly testing and maintenance for the automatic sprinkler system," a request to repair the fire alarm system and a request to repair illuminated exit signs.

In the past two years, Smithsburg and E. Russell Hicks middle schools were cited by the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office for not maintaining a clearance of "at least two feet between the ceiling and storage."

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