A conflict has developed between fire officials and school administrators over what should take priority: fire safety or protecting the schools from a violent crime wave. The problem is compounded by the same financial crisis that has squeezed fire department budgets; tighter education budgets have made less money available to maintain school buildings and fire protection systems. The end result in some cities is firetrap schools that endanger the lives of thousands of students and their teachers.
The public is largely unaware or indifferent to this danger because there hasn't been a multi-death school fire in recent years and the incidence of daytime school fires is fairly low. A recent National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) study showed that most people believe the schools are safe from fire. But, in this case, statistics can be deceiving; all it takes is one school fire to create a tragic disaster in which dozens of children are killed. The potential for that type of disaster increases when buildings are allowed to deteriorate, fire alarms don't work and exit doors are chained shut.
Unfortunately, that seems to be happening in schools across the country. A series of inspections by the Detroit Fire Department uncovered widespread code violations in more than half of the city's schools. They included inoperable or malfunctioning alarm systems, fire doors that didn't close, missing extinguishers, poor housekeeping, blocked stairwells and exit doors that were chained or padlocked. Two schools were closed, including one that had 49 code violations.
"Making the repairs is difficult because it has to be done from operating funds," a school official told The Detroit News & Free Press. "The only way to do it is to take the money out of the classrooms and the kids lose either way. We've neglected the school buildings for 65 years." Another administrator said the violations would be corrected as fast as possible, but couldn't estimate how long it would take or how much it would cost.
Similar conditions existed in Washington, DC, until a tough federal judge started to close schools that failed to pass inspection. At one point, Judge Kaye K. Christian threatened to shut down the entire school system and ordered the fire department to be more aggressive in enforcing compliance with the fire code. The repairs were made, but it eventually led to two high school principals being fined and suspended when inspectors found locked exit doors in their schools.
Detroit and Washington may be worst-case examples, but the conflict between school fire safety and crime prevention exists in many places in the suburbs as well as the inner cities. Hardly a day goes by without a new story of school violence. Schools have become battlegrounds, with students and teachers being beaten, stabbed, shot, robbed and raped. Many of the perpetrators are non-students or ex-students who gain entry through the exit doors and evade teachers and security guards attempting to patrol the corridors. In desperation, some principals have resorted to chaining or padlocking exit doors to keep the hoodlums out. One explained that he could not maintain safety unless most of his building's 62 exits were locked while school was in session.
That, of course, is an intolerable nightmare to fire officials. It may not happen often, but the threat of a school fire is always present. When it does happen, heavy smoke and chained exit doors are a lethal combination, almost guaranteed to produce a loss of life. To firefighters, it is a very real danger; but to parents and school boards, the crimes and violence that occur every day are more frightening. A school board member summed it up when she told The Washington Post: "The community is saying they feel better when doors are locked and chained to keep out the violent perpetrators, the loiterers, thieves … We have had more violent acts committed by people who enter our schools unlawfully than we have had fires."
This type of thinking overlooks the fact that one fire can kill more people than a hundred acts of violence. Blocked or locked exit doors have been responsible for multi-death fires in other types of occupancies. The point to be made to parents, teachers and school officials is that locked exit doors may solve one problem, but create another that is just as dangerous.
You have to be sensitive to the crime problem that is terrorizing the schools, but the fire service cannot stand by and ignore violations of the safety codes. There has to be aggressive enforcement when it comes to such clear and blatant dangers as locked exit doors and defective alarm systems. A school fire is as bad as it gets and no fire chief ever wants to be in the position of explaining why his department allowed exit doors to be chained or overlooked an alarm system that didn't work.
The fire service actually should be pushing for sprinklers in every school but, as always, money is a basic cause for part of the problem. It ultimately goes back to the taxpayers and politicians who have successfully imposed tax and spending limitations on local government. They've damaged the school system just as they've reduced the level of fire protection with their drastic and unrealistic budget cuts. This is the richest country in the world, but children are going to school in unsafe buildings and we have understaffed fire companies because some cheapskates want to save a few bucks on their taxes. It kind of makes you wonder.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.