1. #1
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    Mar 2001

    Post More School Safety Issues

    Orlando Sentinel

    Criticism of schools supervisor intensifies

    By Mary Shanklin and Leslie Postal | Sentinel Staff Writers
    Posted April 27, 2003

    As the Orange County School District came under fire last week for safety conditions at many schools, the man in charge was nowhere in sight.

    In closed-door meetings with staff members, Superintendent Ron Blocker addressed the controversy at arm's length. Security and safety employees went on the front lines to answer questions about hundreds of fire-code violations, while Blocker limited his response to two statements that schools were safe.

    Orange County fire inspectors reported that the schools had failed to act on 107 potentially life-threatening violations so serious that the fire marshal said he would recommend closing any areas where safety problems were not corrected.

    The superintendent's staff responded by releasing the results of the district's own inspections and announcing that $2.5 million would be spent on repairs this year alone. Building officials explained that the district fell victim to new safety codes. The security chief said the district was trying to prioritize repairs.

    Meanwhile, the superintendent made no public comments.

    By mid-afternoon Friday, he said he would answer only two questions. "You guys have bombarded us enough all week, and now I'm going to spend some time with my family," Blocker said by phone.

    The superintendent's lack of communication brought criticism from community leaders and even School Board members.

    "Somebody has to be in charge, and no one is right now," said political consultant Dick Batchelor, who led Orange County's successful $2 billion school-construction referendum last year. "Whoever is giving the superintendent advice not to comment on these life-safety issues is not giving him good advice."

    School Board members complained that Blocker has kept them in the dark.

    Tim Shea, newly elected in November, said he was upset to learn about ongoing problems with school fire inspections and particularly was upset to learn about them from the media and not the superintendent's staff.

    Shea said he didn't receive a copy of the fire marshal's April 4 letter until this week's news reports prompted him to request it.

    "I don't like it. I'm angry. And I intend to ask some hard questions," Shea said. "I don't have enough information at this point in time."

    Board Chairman Rick Roach said he wants to hear at Tuesday's board meeting that the superintendent's staff has a plan to address the issues raised by the fire marshal.

    "We're the final line of defense," Roach said. "If the superintendent is not on top of this, then the board will get on top of this."

    Like his colleagues, Roach said Blocker didn't tell him about the fire marshal's letter until this week, but he said Blocker told him that was because he thought the district was working with the Fire Department to fix the problems.

    "I have some questions about why we could find out at this point," Roach said. He added, "I think we've got to give our guy the benefit of the doubt."

    Elsewhere in Florida, mishandled fire-code violations have cost at least one superintendent his job.

    Three years ago in Lee County, on the state's southwest coast, fire officials found hazardous conditions at 60 of the county's 68 schools. Problems ranged from outdated fire extinguishers to schools with no fire-notification system.

    Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association, recalled that the district assured fire officials that empty fire extinguishers had been filled. When the inspectors went back to check, the extinguishers still were empty.

    The Lee County School Board was prepared to fire Superintendent Bruce Harter strictly because of the district's bad track record addressing fire hazards, district spokesman John Dattola said. Before they could terminate Harter's contract, the superintendent was hired to oversee a school district in Virginia.

    "I can tell you, when the issue is safety of the kids, the administration of Orange County could learn a lesson from Lee County," Dattola said. "They should respond to fire-safety violations quickly."

    Blocker's low-profile approach to the public-safety dispute comes at a time when state legislators are considering a bill intended to make districts more accountable.

    The sponsor, Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, wants to give voters the option of deciding whether they would like a countywide-elected school-board chairman. Under the present system, seven school board members elected from individual districts vote among themselves every year for a new chairman.

    If voters chose the new leadership role by referendum, they would have a focus for their frustrations when they didn't like the way schools were operating. The Orange County fire-safety controversy, Gardiner said, "is the type of thing [where] voters will say, 'Well, who can we hold responsible?'"

    Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty said last week's events show why such a bill is needed.

    "I don't know how I could be Orange County chairman and not be in favor of it. It works in Orange County, and in municipalities where it's in place it works. The chief elected official would be accountable to voters," Crotty said. "The events of the last few days probably bring that into closer focus."

    School districts around the state oppose Gardiner'smeasure, however. Orange County school lobbyists Sarah Sprinkel and John Thrasher, a former speaker of the House, have argued against the legislation.

    "I made a couple of contacts on it," said Thrasher, who was hired by Blocker at a $1,000 monthly retainer to monitor a number of school-related issues. The superintendent said he did not direct Thrasher to focus on Gardiner's bill.

    Because of the widespread school-board opposition, Thrasher said the bill was probably dead.

    Gardiner said the bill has made it through House committees. If it does not make it through the Senate on its own, he said that he may add it to another bill. If that fails, he said he would bring it back next year.

    Mark Schlueb and Bob Mahlburg of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Mary Shanklin can be reached at mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538. Leslie Postal can be reached at 407-772-8046 or lpostal@orlandosentinel.com.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
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    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  2. #2
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    Orlando Sentinel

    Where's adult in charge of school safety?
    Published April 29, 2003
    Mike Thomas

    How many follies must there be at the Orange County School District before voters are allowed to pick a single individual to hold accountable?

    Trying to find out who is in charge at the district is like trying to find out "Who's on first" by asking Abbott and Costello.

    This is the case with the recent news about widespread fire-safety violations at our kids' schools. I've heard a chorus of voices from the district, none making much sense.

    Chairman Rick Roach, one of seven equals on the board taking his rotation at the top, says he "feels comfortable" that our children are safe. Meanwhile, Orange County Fire Marshal Daniel Kucik calls the violations "serious life-safety hazards."

    Whom do you believe?

    Roach is a nice guy but couldn't be more over his head were he trying to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics with a phonics textbook. All he knows is what Superintendent Ron Blocker tells him, which evidently isn't much.

    Given the district's dismal record on fire codes, that's not surprising.

    I know it is hard to get excited about such matters until people die. Just ask parents of the victims of that February bar fire in Rhode Island.

    Imagine what would happen if a fire swept through an overcrowded school cafeteria or a classroom with inadequate escapes. We would have dead children and a criminal investigation into what are now only politically embarrassing revelations.

    I've heard all the hollow excuses from school officials, blaming the violations on changing codes and old buildings.

    At what point did the fire codes allow schools to cram twice as many kids into a cafeteria as its rated capacity? At what point was it OK to improperly store chemicals and gasoline, and to have empty fire extinguishers and broken alarms?

    As for old schools, what about the driveways at Olympia and Timber Creek that are too small to accommodate firetrucks? These schools were finished in 2001.

    If code experts had examined the blueprints before construction, or the buildings during construction, these violations would have been flagged. But the district does its own inspections.

    "In previous years, the architects would draw it and if it looked pretty, we built it," said Rick Harris, the school system's chief security officer.

    That's a frightening statement given that there's no indication that we've yet departed from those "previous years."

    I remember what happened in 1981 when an unqualified in-house engineer at Cocoa Beach approved deficient building plans for a five-story condominium. It fell down during construction and killed 11 workers.

    Thank God Maitland fire officials finally inspected Dommerich Elementary three years ago. They found aluminum blinds that had been bolted shut, blocking off fire escape routes. What school inspector approved that, and does he still have a job?

    It is amazing that district officials are trying to kill legislation creating a powerful School Board chairman. They're even using your tax dollars to pay a lobbyist in Tallahassee.

    Yet, this most recent revelation is another result of nobody being in charge. It allows the type of blame dilution we now are seeing, and the continuation of incompetence.

    If you haven't figured it out, this is why the district opposes the change.

    Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or mthomas@orlandosentinel.com.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
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    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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    Schools make stopgap fire-code fixes

    By Mary Shanklin | Sentinel Staff Writer
    Posted May 2, 2003

    At two Orange County schools, district employees are being paid to wander the halls smelling for smoke. At 40 schools, students can no longer eat sloppy Joes or freshly cooked hamburgers.

    A school memo written Thursday outlined these and other stopgap measures the district is taking to deal with more than 100 potentially life-threatening fire-code violations cited by the county fire marshal.

    "Many of the temporary recommendations that we put in place we actually coordinated with the local fire marshal," wrote Rick Harris, the district safety and security director. "While we recognize that they may not be ideal, they at least enable us to do everything possible in the short term until we can get permanent solutions in place."

    Harris wrote the memo to inform Superintendent Ron Blocker of the latest efforts to pass fire inspections.

    The county fire marshal's office has complained that the school district has been too slow to correct problems cited last summer.

    Fire Marshal Daniel Kucik has recommended that unsafe areas of schools close until repairs can be made.

    On Thursday, his office issued new violation notices at five schools: Olympia High and Cypress Springs, Hidden Oaks, Oak Hill, and Orlo Vista elementaries.

    Olympia had the greatest number of new infractions, including incorrectly stored gas tanks that created a "significant hazard" in four buildings.

    Inspectors look at schools

    In an effort to resolve the dispute, four team inspectors from the state fire marshal's office are walking through 97 schools this week to see whether the violations continue to exist.

    During the entire controversy, school administrators have maintained that children are safe.

    For now, the district is assigning "light-duty" employees to watch for fires at the Magnolia School and Lockhart Middle. Those schools did not have adequate fire-break doors or sprinkler systems in older sections. Workers now patrol the halls for signs of fire until the school system can repair the schools in time for classes to start in August.

    The Lee County School District has employed similar "fire watchers," who would be at the schools anyway. Such workers might include a bus driver who can't perform his regular duties because of a broken arm, Harris said.

    Kettles need hoods

    Another temporary solution has been for schools to unplug oven-sized kitchen appliances known as kettles. The machines were installed without hoods that could help catch splattered grease and contain fires.

    Most often used to cook foods such as sloppy Joes and hamburgers, the kettles will go back into commission next fall, once the district has had the opportunity to put the proper hood devices in place.

    The district has taken more permanent measures at other schools. It installed emergency-escape windows at University High. Aloma and Sadler elementaries also got new windows, as outlined in an action plan the district gave to the county in August.

    District seeks interpretation

    Other fire hazards have not been so easy to fix, and the school district has asked the State Fire Marshal's Office for an interpretation of several fire codes:

    Whether the district must move portable classrooms that are too close together by today's standards but were placed legally at the time.

    Whether it is safe for a dozen two-story elementary schools to let kindergartners through second-graders onto the second floor to access school media centers.

    Whether bleachers must undergo the same level of engineering as stadiums. Fire officials have questioned the soundness of some seating.

    Campus designs questioned

    Another unresolved issue that plagues even some of the newest schools -- Olympia and Timber Creek highs -- is that the campuses were not designed to accommodate emergency vehicles.

    Harris said the district is awaiting the county fire marshal's assessment of schools' access to hydrants and water. That assessment is about 80 percent complete, he added.

    The district has developed an action plan for everything the county fire marshal has identified as a problem, Harris said. Before repairs are made, the school system needs an interpretation from the state on which items must be addressed, he added.

    Mark Schlueb of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Mary Shanklin can be reached at mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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    Mar 2001

    Default Fire Watchers

    Schools in Orange to get 'fire watchers'

    By Mary Shanklin | Sentinel Staff Writer
    Posted May 6, 2003

    Fire watchers' duties

    The Orange County School District has hired 70 fire watchers to patrol halls at about 30 campuses to search for any signs of fire. Among their job requirements:
    Be trained in using fire extinguishers.
    Know building floor plans and the correct exit routes.
    Be able to recognize life-safety hazards, such as blocked exits.
    Carry radio-communication equipment.
    Wear a standard safety orange vest.
    Have a compressed-air boat horn or whistle.

    State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher has ordered dozens of "fire watchers" to patrol the halls at about 30 Orange County schools, sniffing for smoke until the school district can repair life-threatening fire-code violations.

    Gallagher announced the move Monday as part of a push to resolve safety disputes between local fire and school officials. He said the district must do everything from removing padlocks on doors to rearranging portable classrooms before January.

    Gallagher's announcement validated county fire officials, who have accused the district of foot-dragging on fire hazards.

    "We set a pretty tough schedule to get the things done that need to be done," said Gallagher, who is also the state's chief financial officer.

    Superintendent Ron Blocker has complained that fire officials have sounded the alarm on fire safety while overlooking the district's good-faith efforts to address problems. But Monday, he said he had agreed to close schools still not in compliance with fire codes by January. He must update the state fire marshal every 15 days.

    Gallagher sent his orders to the district Friday but refused to release the report to the public until Monday. During the weekend, school officials began training 70 fire watchers, some of them newly hired employees.

    The district also continued work on repairing many of the 107 "life-safety" concerns cited by county fire officials. About 30 schools that still have potentially life-threatening hazards must immediately employ fire watchers to protect students.

    On Monday, about 30 of the fire watchers began patrolling hallways, wearing orange safety vests and carrying air horns or whistles to alert students and teachers about any fire problems.

    Paid about the same amount as substitute teachers, the corps of fire watchers could run up a $4,000-a-day tab in a district already facing major budget cuts.

    The cost will mount as the district tackles repairs that promise to be expensive and time-consuming.

    One of the biggest chores is expected to be spacing portable classrooms farther apart at 65 schools. The boxy structures are supposed to be 20 feet apart on the sides and 10 feet on the ends. At schools where space is limited, moving temporary classrooms will eat into playground areas and sports fields at some campuses.

    Blocker said he was unsure of the total price tag for fixes. The district allocated $2.5 million for repairs, but the new measures outlined Monday could cost more.

    Another change is that state fire officials will review design plans for future schools so that they no longer have design flaws, such as driveways that cannot accommodate emergency vehicles. District officials are still seeking a fix for that flaw at recently built Olympia and Timber Creek high schools.

    Monday's announcement comes less than a week after Blocker and his staff made a presentation to the School Board with the message that classrooms are safe and the county fire marshal had not clearly communicated and detailed problems.

    Orange County Fire Marshal Daniel Kucik complained in April that the district had taken too long to correct fire hazards. School officials said they did not get a complete list of all the problems from the county.

    Blocker said Monday that the lists of code violations from the county seemed to be "a moving target."

    County fire officials said they had ample documentation to show they had fully informed the district of schools in need of attention.

    "I think this [Gallagher's announcement] showed there were some very serious violations and the state fire marshal wanted them corrected," Fire Chief Carl Plaugher said.Orange County is not the first school district in the state to employ fire watchers. In Lee County, the district was forced to put them in about 60 of the school system's 68 schools three years ago.

    "This isn't the worst, but I don't want to brag about that," Gallagher said.

    Mary Shanklin can be reached at mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  5. #5
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    Post School Out..Danger Up!

    Orlando Sentinel

    School's out, and fire danger is up

    By Mary Shanklin and Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writers
    Posted May 25, 2003

    When teens crashed Molotov cocktails through windows at Colonial High School's newly renovated $44 million campus one night last October, there was no monitoring system to alert firefighters.

    None of Orange County's public schools has a montoring system for after-hours fire alarms. The district depends on neighbors or passers-by to notice that something's amiss. In Colonial's case, a burglary-monitoring company detected suspicious noises and alerted district security.

    Fire crews doused the blaze but not before it gutted the renovated offices.

    "Had somebody not contacted somebody and said, 'Hey, your fire alarm's going off,' that whole thing could have burned down," said Wolfgang Halbig, executive director of the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety, a consulting company based in Lake Mary.

    An inadequate fire-alarm system was one of hundreds of safety infractions cited by the Orange County Fire Marshal's Office in its effort to get the school district to address hazards. Hillsborough and other large districts in Florida have monitoring programs that automatically alert them when smoke triggers an alarm.

    The state fire marshal recently ordered the district to make 371 fixes by January, and the superintendent reported last week that employees had resolved 107 of the violations.

    Arsons often go unsolved

    School officials maintain that classrooms are safe from fire hazards. But a review of hundreds of fire-incident reports by the Orlando Sentinel showed Orange County campuses have suffered more than 70 fires since 2000, causing nearly $926,000 in damage. Many of them were arsons, almost all of them unsolved.

    In the county's unincorporated areas, about 40 percent of the fires occurred after hours when schools were not monitored -- a concern as the district prepares to invest $2 billion into new buildings and renovations.

    Portable classrooms, regular classrooms, locker rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, offices and adjacent fields have all been set ablaze. Examples include:

    Nov. 27, 2000 -- Two kindergartners found a barbecue lighter in a metal cabinet behind a teacher's desk at Fern Creek Elementary. After school, they lit four fires in a classroom and extinguished all of them except one. They couldn't put out a flaming backpack that hung on a wooden bookcase. The boys left without reporting the fire, which claimed nine rooms and about $708,000 in damage.

    May 28, 2000 -- At Cypress Creek High, someone lit two fires. One was in a trophy case in a courtyard. Another was in a pile of wood, sawdust, straw and claylike figures next to an art classroom. In the middle of the burning pile, the arsonists had placed a propane tank.

    April 3, 2002 -- Also at Cypress Creek, an Orange County fire engine responded when students inside a portable classroom sprayed hairspray into a lighter and torched papers on the floor. The teacher evacuated the class and extinguished the fire by throwing books on it.

    With the exception of fires at Colonial, Fern Creek and a few other schools, most of the incidents were minor. Only one school had a burn victim, and she was a volunteer at an extracurricular charity event.

    Restrooms are a hot spot for fires on school days, with students lighting up everything from coats to soap dispensers. Some daytime fires are flukes, such as when a teacher left incense burning on her desk and it set an artificial plant on fire. Others are a sign of aging buildings where old electrical systems can spark and ignite.

    Throughout the incident reports, however, firefighters mention many of the same type of unsafe conditions cited by the fire marshal: locked gates, malfunctioning alarms and hazardous kitchens.

    And reports show that all too often, only dumb luck and the incompetence of young arsonists -- not the district's fire alarms or sprinkler systems -- have kept small blazes from growing into raging infernos.

    School security director Rick Harris said the district is committed to addressing all of the problems cited by the fire marshal. The district plans to spend $5 million to make the safety repairs and upgrades.

    Still, he concedes that the end is nowhere in sight.

    "The nature of fire-safety issues requires an ongoing vigil," Harris said. "Someone blocks a doorway or egress. There is no end; we just continue to try to keep safe."

    Brush fires raise risk

    As summer approaches, the schools face one of their most vulnerable times of the year. Few adults frequent the buildings, yet these are months when brush fires are common and when children often have more free time than supervision.

    Just last month, firefighters in Apopka had no way of knowing that a fire had been smoldering at Rock Springs Elementary for at least an hour. Finally, worshippers in Bible study at the church next door called 911 to report the alarm sounding.

    When they arrived, firefighters found that a fire had been set in a garbage can in a hallway outside the school's media center. By the time it was discovered, flames had climbed the wall, burning a 3-foot-by-12-foot section. Only the size of the fire and the concrete-block construction of the wall kept it from spreading further.

    In July 2000, a Maitland resident reported to the Maitland Fire Department that an alarm was sounding and had been for two days. School officials reported no fires, saying construction work may have triggered the alarm.

    In the summer of 2000, the school district had the great fortune of having neighbors report the Cypress Creek fire that was flaming around a propane tank.

    "That's the case of having neighbors supplement and augment what we are trying to do," Harris said. "It makes a tremendous difference."

    Orange is not the only district that has no full-time system to protect its prime investment. Seminole County also relies on tips from school neighbors and passers-by.

    "The School Board made the decision that fire alarms are there to protect building occupants, not the building systems," said Bob De Vecchio, school-safety coordinator.

    Orange County firefighters have responded to more than 600 fire-alarm calls at schools since January 2000. Some of the alarm systems worked properly, with detectors triggered by smoke or a child pulling an alarm switch. But most have been false alarms caused by malfunctions.

    Epidemic of false alarms

    Fire officials say that every minute firefighters spend responding to such a call takes time from real emergencies at homes and businesses. Records show that some schools are repeat violators, and district officials have been slow to fix broken alarm systems.

    Firefighters have responded to 37 alarms at William Frangus Elementary School since June 2001, for instance, including one day three months ago when they were called out three times. During 12 days in July 2001, firefighters went to Conway Middle School 11 times.

    In the past five years, area fire agencies have fined the school district $78,000 for false alarms. So serious is the problem that the school system unplugged the alarm system during Christmas and spring break.

    A further annoyance for firefighters is that they often find themselves locked out of schools once they arrive. Unlike Seminole and some other districts, Orange County does not equip all of its schools with lockboxes containing master keys so firefighters can gain quick access to classrooms and offices at night and on weekends.

    On Sept. 25, an Ocoee police officer reported a fire alarm at Thornebrooke Elementary, scene of repeated false alarms.

    "No alarm ever came in from the alarm company. We learned later that the alarm company was out of service," a firefighter wrote in a report. "We were only able to access the building because a teacher was there early. The school has no lockbox. The school has no map of their system."

    The firefighter could not access offices or air-handler rooms until the principal and a district official arrived. That was a Wednesday. Firefighters were dispatched to the school again -- and again locked out -- for after-hours alarms Saturday, Sunday, Monday and several times that next week.

    Reports show that countywide, firefighters who respond to emergency calls usually must hope a custodian or teacher is working late or wait for district security officers to show up with a key. At some schools, security officers have taken as long as 30 minutes to respond.

    "It was getting very frustrating," Ocoee fire inspector Butch Stanley said. "Without the lockbox, we can't get into the facility to check it out without doing a lot of damage."

    As the district embarks on a $2 billion construction program, the after-hours fires raise questions about whether the district is adequately protecting the investment of taxpayers.

    Schools need to be protected seven days a week from those who would destroy them, said Halbig, the national school-safety consultant. Some students, he said, seem determined to ruin their schools.

    "If someone wants to commit arson, the question you have to answer is: Are our schools protected 24 hours a day?" he said.

    The answer to that question may soon change. On Tuesday, the School Board is expected to consider paying the district's longtime burglar-alarm company to begin monitoring school fire-alarm systems, too.

    That would mean less dependence on people such as Noreen Colbert, who lives across the street from William Frangus Elementary, the school with the most false alarms in Orange County.

    "Sometimes it will just keep going 'beep, beep, beep,' with the lights flashing in the hallways," she said. "I always look out the window to make sure there's no smoke or flames."

    Mary Shanklin can be reached at mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538. Mark Schlueb can be reached at mschlueb@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5417.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  6. #6
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    Orange schools skip fire drills

    By Mary Shanklin | Sentinel Staff Writer
    Posted August 11, 2003

    Safety mark missed
    Aug 11, 2003

    When Orange County students return to school today, one lesson they may miss is how to escape classrooms during fires or other emergencies.

    During the past school year, more than a third of 162 Orange County publicschools failed to perform the minimum fire drills required by the district, according to records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel:

    Sixty-three schools missed at least one of the 11 required drills during the past school year.

    Eighteen schools missed more than one drill. Azalea Park Elementary missed nine, staging only two during the entire school year.

    Three schools skipped mandatory drills during the school year but held them during the summer months when most students were gone.

    Twenty-seven campuses also failed to have severe-weather drills, in which students go to a safe area within the school instead of evacuating the buildings.

    Kerry Edwards, whose three daughters attend Azalea Park, said she was outraged the school would ignore emergency training for children as young as age 5.

    "As a parent, when I send my child to school, I'm looking for safety out of concern for them," Edwards said. "I do fire drills at home, and I expect them to do it at school. Two fire drills? Those children probably don't know why they're doing it. They forget."

    Orange County is not alone. In Volusia County, more than 10 percent of schools reached their fire-drill quotas by staging the evacuations during the summer. Safety coordinator Jim Yates said his county's rules do not specify that students must be at school during the drills.

    He said he's working to get the drills done during the school year, however.

    Sharp criticism

    The lack of fire drills is the latest in an ongoing controversy about poor fire-safety measures at Orange County schools.

    In recent months, the district has come under sharp criticism for failing to address hundreds of fire-code violations cited by local and state fire marshals. Problems range from inoperable fire alarms to a lack of fire exits.

    In April, the state fire marshal gave school officials until January to make repairs. With the new school year about to start, the district has tackled more than half of the 400-plus code violations cited by fire inspectors.

    Orange County School Board Chairman Rick Roach and Superintendent Ron Blocker have insisted that everything is OK because schools have many safety measures and that fire drills were an important part of the overall safety picture.

    "We have many safeguards in place, including regular drills, evacuation plans and a variety of safety and notification devices," Blocker said in a statement in April.

    When Blocker recently learned that schools had skipped mandatory drills, he said he would not be satisfied until 100 percent of Orange schools comply with district fire-drill requirements.

    Frequency matters

    The rules call for one drill a month during the academic year plus two in August. His staff is working on a new system to alert administrators when a school skips a drill.

    Fire drills simply are not something you skip, said Kirsten Paoletti, spokesperson for the National Fire Protection Association.

    "It's a matter of routine. We don't want it to be a matter of complacency, 'Oh, there's another fire drill,' " Paoletti said. "You want to do it enough so they automatically know how to get out of the building. If you don't do it enough times, it does not become ingrained in them to be instinctive. That's the goal in frequency."

    The key time of year for fire drills is August. All Orange campuses had at least one welcome-back-to-school drill. Yet records show that 26 schools failed to perform a second mandatory drill in August.

    Compliance varies

    The school with the overall worst track record for drills, Azalea Park Elementary, is expected to improve this year. Principal James Leslie, who is new to the school, said he was very aware of the school's disregard for fire drills.

    "I can guarantee we'll be in compliance this year," he said.

    Other schools that skipped drills included Cypress Creek High, Boone High, John Young Elementary, Silver Star Center, Richmond Heights and Winter Park Tech. Each held only seven drills during the past school year. Eccleston Elementary had six.

    Regina Ponce, principal at John Young, said she had a number of reasons for missing drills last year, including the installation of a new fire- and security-alarm system. She said she is committed to meeting the requirements this year and already has two drills planned for August.

    Winter Park High School missed drills in October and November yet staged a fire drill when most students were gone in June.

    Eleven schools exceeded the minimum 11 drills required during an academic year. Bay Meadows Elementary led that group with 13 drills.

    Bay Meadows Principal Melanie Craig said it's so important to her that she plans drills for regular school days and for extended days so the after-school program will be prepared in case of an emergency.

    "We put it on the calendar and decide it's extremely important," Craig said. "We do not want any child hurt."

    State administrative rules require 10 drills annually, and most counties follow those standards. Seminole County, for example, reports that all its schools performed the required fire drills last year.

    In Lake County, some high schools may have doubled up and counted a hurricane or other emergency drill as one of the 10, said Buddy Martin, Lake County school safety director.

    He said that practice was unacceptable.

    Skipped drills will register

    In terms of success, Orange County schools took an average of five minutes to evacuate. Jones High, McCoy Elementary, Apopka Elementary, Stonewall Jackson Middle and Westside Tech reported taking eight minutes.

    Principals are all well aware of fire-drill requirements, and the district regularly reminds them, said district safety director Rick Harris, who was given responsibility for fire-safety issues during the past year.

    He said he was unsure why drills were not monitored more closely in the past.

    For the future, the school district will be more aware of any fire-drill negligence because officials are working on a new system that will alert district administrators when a school has missed one of the required drills, Harris said.

    "Our No. 1 priority is that we want to make sure these drills are taking place," Harris said.

    He said it is imperative that schools perform the drills for student safety and also so officials can isolate any problems and then try to fix them.

    Liz Gibson, Denise-Marie Balona and Dave Weber of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Mary Shanklin can be reached at mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  7. #7
    District Chief
    distchief60b's Avatar
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    Mar 2001

    Thumbs up Schools receive accolades

    Fire marshal praises schools for code fixes

    By Leslie Postal | Sentinel Staff Writer
    Posted August 16, 2003

    The correction of more than 200 serious fire-code violations at schools won the Orange County school district praise Friday from Florida's top fire-safety official and an end to state monitoring of the situation.

    State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher said his office was impressed with the district's progress in eliminating hazards and was confident that remaining work would be completed by early next year.

    "We're very happy," said Gallagher, after touring Gotha Middle School with school administrators. "These schools have been brought up to where they belong. They're totally safe for students."

    All of the most serious violations cited by fire inspectors this spring -- the so-called "A list" -- have been fixed, Gallagher said.

    "It's our goal not to be back," he added.

    The serious violations at nearly 80 schools included windows that didn't open, problems with kitchen appliances, missing fire alarms and blocked emergency exits.

    At Gotha, cited for five violations, workers had to add a door to a room without enough exits, re-hang doors so they swing out -- not into -- rooms and remove a built-in counter that blocked access to an emergency exit window.

    Gallagher's office started inspecting county schools in late April after the local fire marshal grew frustrated that the district, despite repeated warnings, had failed to repair numerous fire-code violations found in county schools.

    The situation reached a critical juncture when Orange County fire officials threatened to get schools closed if the problems weren't corrected.

    In May, Gallagher stepped in and ordered "fire watchers" to patrol the halls of some schools until the violations could be repaired.

    He also ordered the district to move quickly to correct the violations.

    Fire watchers continue to patrol 19 schools because of serious violations found since the state stepped in, officials said.

    Friday Superintendent Ron Blocker and Orange County Fire Chief Carl Plaugher said Gallagher's office had helped improve the relationship between their agencies.

    They said they expected that future problems -- all-but-guaranteed in a district with some 150 schools -- would be resolved more quickly than those in the past year.

    Plaugher said he was happy with the "remarkable" progress school officials made correcting problems this summer.

    "The undertaking was just huge, and they stepped up to the plate," he said. "Have the major issues been fixed? You're darn right."

    Less-serious violations -- the so-called "B list" -- must be corrected by Jan. 31.

    Those violations wouldn't prevent students and staff from fleeing a burning building but could make it difficult for the fire department to stop a fire quickly, Gallagher said.

    Those violations include limited access to fire hydrants on some campuses and portable classrooms placed too close together.

    Blocker said his staff was committed to fixing all fire-code problems.

    "We will continue this," he said.

    Leslie Postal can be reached at lpostal@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5273.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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