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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as New Fire Law Turns Up Heat on N.D. Schools

New Fire Law Turns Up Heat on N.D. Schools

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The two school buildings in the Langdon district in northern North Dakota are typical of many others built in the state nearly three decades ago. In both, glass around the classroom doorways allows natural light to penetrate the schools' sheltered corridors.

Over the years, little thought was given to the design, or the problems it might create.

But this year the local school board is facing more than $30,000 in bills to replace dozens of glass panels and upgrade smoke-detection systems at the schools, which serve Langdon's 630 K-12 students. The windows must be replaced with wired glass, which could prevent them from shattering in excessive heat. Without the changes, the hallway could be an unsafe escape route, according to fire officials.

Although the schools passed numerous fire-safety inspections in the past, new state legislation that kicked in last year has raised the standard on safety for North Dakota's 550 school buildings.

"The people who send their children to public schools have always assumed that we have this covered," said Tom Decker, the director of school finance and organization for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

"They assume that the schools they send their children to are safe and regularly inspected," he added. "We were put out on a limb in making sure that was happening."

Strengthening Standards

A push by school and fire officials for more stringent fire-safety measures led state lawmakers to pass a new law in 1997 that requires thorough inspections of all public and private schools at least every three years.

Before that, the Langdon schools had regular, but inconsistent, visits from the state fire marshal. The frequency and rigor of the inspections, often conducted by local, volunteer fire departments, have varied widely. Officials admit that some schools in the state hadn't had a proper examination in more than two decades.

The state fire marshal's office is about to close the books on the first round of inspections under the new law.

It is working closely with schools to minimize the cost of repairs, according to John Elstad, the state's chief deputy fire marshal.

"We're not out to create any hardships; we're out to improve safety," Mr. Elstad said.

While some significant violations were found--mostly at schools where inappropriate additions or renovations were made to older structures--most of the state's schools had only minor violations. Their blocked exits, improperly stored flammable materials, and poorly maintained fire and smoke detectors are easily fixed, Mr. Elstad said. Under the law, schools have a year to fix their violations.

Fire safety is an issue districts across the country have had to confront. In those places where capital-improvement budgets have dried up, fire-code considerations may have suffered, according to Michael W. Minieri, the executive director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, based in Orlando, Fla.

Fiscal Concerns

Beyond regular fire drills, maintaining or upgrading fire-safety measures tends to move to the back burner without regular policing, Mr. Minieri said.

"A lot of times you don't see improvement in the level of safety or code enforcement until after a major incident," he said. "School administrators who have not experienced major fire losses have other priorities, one of which is fiscal."

Fiscal challenges, for instance, helped keep school officials in the nation's capital from expeditiously addressing necessary repairs to school buildings. Sagging and leaking rooftops in Washington eventually translated into thousands of fire-code violations in dozens of schools.

A long-running lawsuit brought by parents ultimately prompted a court order that forced the 79,000-student District of Columbia system to address the most serious problems.

The exchange drew national attention when the city's 146 schools were forced to open weeks late last year to avoid putting children in buildings where potentially hazardous roof work was taking place. ("D.C. Schools Seek New Focus on Academics," Nov. 26, 1997.)

Finding the Funds

Langdon officials also have budget concerns. The North Dakota district has no capital-improvement fund, so it must rely on its general fund to pay for the repairs.

Without an increase in local taxes, money earmarked for other projects and programs will likely be tapped. The depressed farming community the district serves cannot pick up the slack.

"I'm the first to say that we are concerned about the safety of our kids," Superintendent Bernard A. Lipp said. "But you throw this in line with a little bit of a roof problem and a boiler problem. With the [harsh] winter weather coming, what do you do?"

There hasn't been a fire tragedy in a school in North Dakota in recent memory. But as many as a third of the state's school buildings are more than 30 years old, and do not meet today's fire-code standards.

Many other states, however, are way ahead of North Dakota in enforcing safety rules, Mr. Minieri said. Most states have had mandatory annual inspections of schools for decades.

North Dakota fire officials expect to further tighten up their inspection schedule to every two years.

The state hasn't heard complaints from the public about the condition of school buildings, according to Sen. Layton W. Freborg, a Republican who chaired the interim education finance committee that pushed the new law.

Still, lawmakers wanted to take action to help prevent a potential disaster. "We've put some teeth in the existing law," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 18,22

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