NAPLES “Both the Collier County School District and Collier County fire departments agree ” students and staff members are safe from any imminent fire threat in Collier schools.
Still, the number of lingering fire code violations in the district’s schools is staggering, and a new law could mean those violations aren’t identified and addressed annually in a system that already doesn’t have a lot of teeth to get the violations corrected.
The Daily News asked several Collier County fire departments to view the most recent fire inspection logs of the public schools. While fire inspectors and the district insist students are safe, the fire inspectors have found plenty of reasons to cite schools for not following fire code.
Of the school reports inspected by the Daily News, Pine Ridge Middle School had the fewest violations, with four. Gulf Coast High School was the biggest offender, with 246 violations.
Among the violations, schools “daisy-chained” electrical power strips; evacuation plans weren’t posted; fire extinguishers were out of date or had been discharged; smoke detectors were missing; sprinkler system heads had been removed; artwork or other flammable material exceeded a certain percentage of the rooms; and doors were propped open.
“Most of it is housekeeping stuff,” Golden Gate fire Battalion Chief Bill Silvester said. “We aren’t seeing the major problems we saw 10 years ago, when alarms and systems were not maintained. Overall, the schools and the district work very well with us.”
But not all of it was routine. At Manatee Middle School, which had 126 violations, reports from the East Naples fire department indicate the “fire sprinkler underground is exposed and corroded.” Lely High School had “inadequate sprinkler coverage” and “inaccurate strobe coverage.”
Several of the violations at certain schools were repeat ones. Cypress Palm Middle School, which had 135 violations, has a combustible cabinet close to the kiln, which had been a violation for more than two years, according to Big Corkscrew Fire Inspector Andrew Marfongella.
Before July 1, local fire departments inspected every school once a year, at least. The Florida Legislature this spring passed legislation, which went into effect July 1, that doesn’t require fire departments to do inspections of schools each year.
Florida requires fire departments to inspect schools and then report the violations in each building. However, the state doesn’t ask fire departments to provide information as to whether the violations have been fixed.
“They leave it up to individual fire departments to make sure it gets done,” North Naples Fire Inspector Dale Fey said. “More often than not, it is just an education issue.”
Once a school is written up for a violation, the district has 45 days to correct the problem. But what is actually a violation can be up for debate between the fire departments and schools.
Collier School District Chief Operations Officer Michele LaBute said the school district contracts with a company to conduct fire inspections, a fact confirmed by the departments. And, with multiple fire codes and interpretations of that fire code, inspectors said what they might write up a school for is something that the district-employed fire inspection company would say doesn’t violate the fire code.
In addition, while the departments can write up violations, they don’t really have the power to enforce whether the violations are corrected.
“There is some recourse through the state fire marshal’s office,” East Naples Fire Deputy Chief Nick Biondo said. “But it would be up to the state or the (Department of Education) to follow through. And then you get into interpretation issues. Basically, we have the authority to require anything that could present imminent danger to be fixed.”
Fire officials confirmed that those issues that are serious are fixed immediately and said if the buildings weren’t safe, students and staff wouldn’t be in them.
While the new law might give local fire departments a break, many officials said the new law is vague and, while it doesn’t require fire departments to inspect schools every year, there is no real guideline to how often they should be inspected.
D’Angelo said he hopes the Collier County fire departments can come together and interpret the law to ensure that all schools are getting equal treatment across the county.
Biondo said with budget cuts and, as time-consuming as school fire inspections are, local fire districts may not get to schools each year.
“With the budget cuts, I am going to lose some of my inspectors. Rather than looking at a school, they will be on the back of a fire truck,” he said. “We won’t have an extra 600 hours to devote to school inspections.”
Still, LaBute said some of the items in the fire departments’ reports were surprising.
“We will be following up on it,” she said. “There is no reason any of our fire extinguishers should be out of date.”
Collier school district officials said regardless of how or when the departments inspect schools, the district will continue to conduct inspections annually.
District spokesman Ryan Schwartz said the district has a rigorous fire safety inspection and re-inspection process that minimizes the chances of fire safety issues in the schools.
“The district’s goal each year is to ensure that all life-safety and casualty hazards are identified and corrected immediately and all other identified fire safety issues are addressed as soon as possible. The district can assure the public that there are no life-safety hazards in the schools,” he wrote in an email.