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School fire dangers exposed

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Getting out before the flames spread could mean the difference between life and death. But is your child's school safe from fire? 

NBC-17 Investigates found multiple violations at many schools in the Triangle's largest school system.

When it comes to school fires, the youngest students are most at risk because evacuating the students is more difficult.

"We're definitely concerned about elementary schools," Wake County Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Charles Johnson said.

Johnson leads a three man team of school fire inspectors charged with covering 169 schools. Every public school is inspected twice a year. Some pass the test, others have recurring problems.

"We are looking at everything in the building," Johnson said. "If something looks out of the ordinary, it's generally a problem."

NBC-17 searched the county's fire inspection database, finding the most recent inspection reports from the last six months.

At Holly Ridge Elementary, electrical hazards; at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, a storage room was used as a classroom, and students were packed in an over-crowded office. 

And at Wakefield High School, inspectors uncovered malfunctioning fire doors, fire extinguishers hidden from view and a fire alarm system in "trouble mode," meaning it wasn't working properly. Many of the violations there were repeat violations. 

Finally, at Broughton High School -- one of the districts oldest buildings -- pages of violations include obstructed hallways, blocked escape windows, obstructed sprinklers and missing fire extinguishers. 

The violations are common with school districts dealing with explosive growth and nowhere to put the kids. 

"We have students in areas that may not have been previously approved originally for student occupancy," Johnson explained. 

Robert Pace, safety administrator for the Wake County Public School System, is in charge of making sure the schools and their principals correct the problems. He said as the district expands, his office plans to keep up with the growth "as best we can." 

But when asked about Broughton's long list of concerns, Pace replied, "It's a direct proportion to the age of the school in some cases. The older the school, the more violations you may see."

Johnson said when immediate problems are found, such as blocked exits, the principal is forced to correct it immediately. Other issues are to be done before the next inspection. And while the majority of schools comply, that doesn't always happen. 

"I'd say there are some schools the inspectors have to worker harder to get compliance," Johnson said.

And the bigger the school, the harder it is to keep up too. Pace said a lack of funds means many things may get a band-aid, with full repairs on hold until a new budget year, which often results in repeat violations.

"There is always room for improvement," Pace said. "If you have a single violation on an inspection form, you could have done better. But we do turn our attention to every violation."

Johnson said his office and the district have a good relationship. As of now, schools in Wake County are not issued fines for violations. But as the nation's 16th largest school system continues to add students faster than it can build schools, the need to keep them safe from fire is greater than ever.

________________________

Fire inspection records for each Wake County public school are public record. Parents wanting to know how a child's school rated can request records from the county's Fire Services division. Their website is http://www.wakegov.com/fire/default.htm

Durham, Cumberland and other surrounding counties have similar school inspections done by county fire officials year round.

 

Jonathan Carlson

Jonathan is an investigative reporter and anchor with over a decade of experience. Jonathan has broken stories that have resulted in local and statewide change. Contact our Investigative Team anytime HERE. More>>

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