ANNAPOLIS – With state law silent on how frequently schools should be inspected for fire hazards, policy and practice vary in Maryland.
Records for Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City show that most schools have been inspected within the past year.
But 42 of Baltimore County’s 148 public schools were last inspected for fire hazards in 1992 or 1993, and 12 have had no inspection since 1991 or earlier, records show.
Montgomery County records show that of 158 public schools, 18 have not been inspected the past four years, and 15 have not been inspected since 1992.
Inspections in Maryland’s 19 other counties are supervised by the State Fire Marshal, whose local divisions conduct them about every other year, said spokesman Bob Thomas.
“Basically, [the law] says schools are one of the properties that shall be inspected, but it does not specify a time frame,” Thomas said.
In Prince George’s County, all public schools were inspected between May 1993 and October 1994. All public schools in the Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City jurisdictions have been inspected within the past year.
Montgomery County does not perform its own school inspections, but relies on area fire companies, said fire Capt. Brian Geraci, the assistant fire marshal.
The county had no records of inspection for Wheaton High School and Richie Park Elementary School. However, some records may be lacking because the local departments did not send them in, Geraci said.
Geraci added that although school inspections are important, violations are more likely to be found in residences.
“I think it’s more important to inspect residential occupancies where we have more fires,” he said.
Fire Lt. Herb Taylor, head of inspections for Baltimore County, said backlogs occurred in high-growth areas like Owings Mills and Perry Hall.
New businesses and multi-unit dwellings must be inspected before they are occupied, and often push back scheduled school inspections, Taylor said.
Baltimore County Schools spokesman Charles Herndon said he was a “little surprised” that not all schools were inspected annually. He added that the district has been installing new fire alarm systems in some schools.
“We’re obviously very concerned about the safety of our students,” he said.
Taylor cautioned that a few schools may have been inspected so recently that files might not be up-to-date.
Officials in all jurisdictions cited proper storage of supplies, lighted emergency exit signs, unobstructed exits and maintenance of alarm systems as the most important things they look at in schools. Most inspectors use a checklist, notify school administrators of violations, and reinspect where violations are found.
Baltimore City fire Capt. Theodore Saunders, inspection coordinator, expressed concern that school officials may inadvertently violate fire codes because of their fears of crime. Some principals are so worried about intruders that they have locked fire exits, he said.
“In the changing times it has become more of a problem,” Saunders said. “More and more people are inclined to address the problem by keeping people out, while at the same time they’re keeping people in.”
The department is working with school officials to increase awareness of the locked door violations and to find solutions, such as installing panic hardware that sets off an alarm when a door is opened.
Another recent problem is students deliberately setting fires, Saunders said. Investigators believe a fire Jan. 30 at Lake Clifton Eastern High School was deliberately set.
Baltimore County inspectors have also seen doors locked for security, but not frequently, Taylor said.
“We understand [the principals] have concerns,” he said. “But if we go in and find [a door] locked and chained, we say, you have to take it off.”
Many schools have installed panic hardware as a compromise, Taylor said.
Montgomery County’s school board curbed the problem by asking principals to contact the fire department before locking a door, said Lt. James Barton. But routine maintenance presents the more typical problem, Barton said.
In Anne Arundel County, cooperation has cut the time it takes to correct violations, said fire Capt. Michael Sims. A maintenance official accompanies fire inspectors, and if a repair is required, writes a work order on the spot.
“The paper trail has been cut,” Sims said. “In-house repairs can be done much quicker.
Prince George’s County fire Capt. Duane Schultz said one of his department’s concerns is schools “built before there were a lot of code restrictions. Things in there are old and are getting to the point where they need to be updated or replaced.”
But routine inspections may not make a difference in older schools. Sparks Elementary School, one of the oldest school buildings in Baltimore County, was destroyed by an electrical fire Jan. 8. Records show it was inspected in May 1994. Taylor said that to discover the problem at fault, inspectors “would have had to tear the walls out.” -30-