'Fire Watchers' Roam Fla. Schools In Push to Meet State Codes

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A statewide mandate requiring Florida's public schools to meet fire and safety standards before starting classes this school year has districts scrambling to fix broken fire alarms and clear out electrical closets used for storage.

Districts desperate to avoid shutting schools have hired "fire watchers" to roam hallways and classrooms, searching for smoke, flames, and other safety hazards. Fire watchers wearing bright orange or yellow vests and armed with two-way radios patrolled schools in Miami-Dade and Lee counties when classes started in August.

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher, Florida's state education commissioner, ordered a fire and safety review of all schools in June, after learning about a class action filed by Miami-Dade parents who claimed the district's schools were rife with life-threatening fire-code violations.

Districts had to certify that their schools were hazard-free by Aug. 15 or risk having their buildings closed by the state.

School officials in Florida's 67 county districts spent the summer surveying their buildings for safety hazards. State law requires local fire marshals to inspect schools, and it is the responsibility of local districts to make sure their schools comply with the state code. The state, along with the districts, must ensure schools correct any violations.

JoAnn Carrin, a spokeswoman for the Florida education department, said all districts had submitted safety reports, but she could not estimate how many schools have safety-code violations. The department is still reviewing reports for the state's 2,500 schools, she said.

Some of the worst problems cropped up in Miami-Dade and Lee counties.

Mr. Gallagher reached a formal agreement with Lee County to keep its schools open, provided the district hires and trains more than 240 fire watchers to work at the 25 schools with the worst violations. Of Lee County's 67 schools, 64 were not in compliance with fire and safety codes. Violations ranged from missing heat sensors under stairwells to walls that didn't reach the ceiling.

Bruce Harter, a spokesman for the 57,000-student district, said it would delay remodeling projects and building upgrades to make the repairs. The fire watchers cost about $13,000 a day.

In the 316,000-student Miami-Dade County district, the lawsuit's plaintiffs agreed to stop legal action for 30 days as long as continual progress is made in bringing its 315 schools up to code. The state hasn't signed off on the plan, Ms. Carrin said last week. Under the agreement, the district has until Feb. 1 to correct its problems.

Eight of Miami-Dade's schools have inoperable fire alarms and were staffed with fire watchers, along with five other schools that failed to meet fire-code standards. The district contracted with two private security companies for the 40 fire watchers, who were trained by fire inspectors and equipped with blowhorns, cell phones, and two-way radios.

'Absolute Nonsense'

Paul Novak, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and the mayor of Surfside in Dade County, called replacing fire alarms with fire watchers "absolute nonsense." Mr. Novak's visit last November to serve as principal for a day at Miami Beach Senior High School sparked his school-safety crusade. He and other parents filed the lawsuit in June.

"It's an epidemic," Mr. Novak said. "Hundreds of schools have been ignoring maintenance and repair problems."

Alfredo Suarez, Miami-Dade's fire marshal, said his inspectors had found that only 37 of the 212 schools in his jurisdiction were in compliance as of July. Inspectors found padlocked exit doors, storage in electrical rooms, inoperable fire alarms, and schools without sprinkler systems.

Mr. Suarez said significant improvements have been made since then. He complained that he got little response from the district until the lawsuit was filed and the local news media publicized the problem.

Miami-Dade schools spokesman Alberto Carvalho said the district hasn't been ignoring safety issues. Since 1993, the county has spent $250 million addressing school safety needs, he said; the school board allocated an additional $30 million for fire safety in May.

But with thousands of new students enrolling each year, he said, Miami-Dade is facing a construction crunch. The county is expecting to enroll 10,000 more students this fall than it did a year ago.

"We can't build schools as fast as students are coming," Mr. Carvalho said, adding that five new schools opened last month. "The pot of dollars to fix schools is the same pot of dollars used to build schools."

In addition, the district identified 43 schools that need major renovations, including replacement of windows and construction of new walls and exits.

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 15

Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as 'Fire Watchers' Roam Fla. Schools In Push to Meet State Codes
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