Neglected schools no surprise, Colo. firefighters say
FRISCO Fire officials across Colorado werent surprised when a recent audit found that state officials were failing to inspect public schools as required by law. Theyd been warning lawmakers and anyone else who would listen for years.Although no students are believed to have been hurt as a result of the lack of inspections, fire chiefs say its only a matter of time unless the state decides to act.I havent seen a state inspector in 20 years, Deputy Lake Dillon Fire Chief Jeff Berino, who is responsible for schools in Frisco and Silverthorne, complained recently.According to records obtained by The Associated Press under the Colorado Open Records Act, frustrated local fire officials compiled a report for lawmakers in 2004 citing fires that got out of hand, school roofs that collapsed, and an elementary school where exposed electrical wiring was found the day before it was scheduled to open. Fortunately, no one was injured, they said.Still, lawmakers refused to give them the authority they wanted to do their own comprehensive inspections.State officials say they are required by law to conduct about 150 inspections a year on new and remodeled schools. As many as eight inspections are required at each facility as construction proceeds. Existing facilities are presumed to have met the fire codes at the time they were built and are subject to inspections only during renovation.The Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association, which represents about 300 chiefs, says it has been trying for years to transfer responsibility for school inspections from the state Oil and Public Safety Division in the Department of Labor to either local officials or the Fire Safety Division in the Department of Public Safety. But they were rebuffed, caught in a turf war between the state and local school boards.The Department of Labor, meanwhile, acknowledged it didnt have enough inspectors, but still insisted on retaining control.In an exchange of e-mails in 2004 with other fire chiefs, Berino said there were no state inspections during construction of Summit High School in Summit County for 850 students. Two years after the building was occupied, there was no certificate of occupancy issued by the state inspector, he wrote.We are charged with protecting the children as well as our firefighters in these structures. Dont we owe them the best protection our staff and adopted codes can offer them? Berino told his colleagues.After 20 years, a state inspector this week visited Summit Middle School, Frisco Elementary and Summit High Schools, the Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue Department reported.In compiling complaints from fellow fire officials, Berino noted in another e-mail that school construction officials are well versed in code requirements and often seek to ignore them and the potential consequences.To back up their claims, fire officials compiled a list of problems that included fires, structural collapses and dangerous construction practices. Among them: At Federal Heights Elementary School, a 1984 fire investigation revealed that fire stopping and draft stopping required by code was absent in the roof and ceiling assembly. The fire spread unchecked within minutes, contributing to total loss of the building. No one was hurt. In 1993, snow caused a partial roof collapse at the Granby Elementary School due to improper design. Superintendent Robb Rankin, who was the principal at the time, said students were off for Christmas vacation when snow slid off the gym and buckled a metal roof. Rankin said he has never seen a state inspector at a school construction site in his district. In 1979, one day before Frisco Elementary School was scheduled to open, local fire officials canceled opening day when they discovered exposed electrical outlets and obstructed exits. In West Adams County, the situation got so bad that in 1993, the county Fire Protection District got a court order allowing it to conduct fire inspections in Adams County School District 12, according to a copy of the ruling included in the Summit County records. According to records obtained by the AP, in 1995, fire officials in Summit Countys Snake River Fire Protection District sent a letter to the local school board begging permission to do their own inspections. The school district agreed.The state of Colorado has little or no investment in these projects, but the taxpayers of Summit County have committed considerable tax dollars to construct new schools and to remodel existing facilities to improve the quality of education for our children. If a serious fire safety incident were to occur, the public will demand answers from local officials, warned fire chief David Parmley.Wayne Horn, who retired two years ago after 20 years as the states building official in charge of inspections, told the AP he was promised help when he took the job and never got it.He said he was the only inspector hired by the state to perform hundreds of school inspections statewide. He said the state has 178 school districts and 1,700 schools, many with multiple buildings.Horn said things got worse when the state took away his car and forced him to share transportation with 500 other workers in the state motor pool during the Gov. Roy Romer administration a decade ago. As a result, he said, many field inspections were never done.
He said he warned lawmakers, but they told him the state didnt have the money.I tried to tell them, and they wouldnt listen, Horn said.With no way to conduct the numerous inspections, Horn said he issued certificates of occupancy based on reviews of blueprints, where he believed most problems could be easily detected.Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, said the Colorado Association of School Boards opposed his attempts to transfer responsibility to local fire chiefs because local boards didnt want to give up control. Districts complained it would be too costly for them to meet a plethora of local fire codes rather than a national standard currently used by state inspectors.They didnt think it was the business of fire chiefs and firefighters to handle this. They knew about this and ignored it, Wiens said, adding he will try again next year.Lauren Kingbery, legal counsel for the school board association, said school boards opposed the bill because they want a statewide standard. School boards cited instances in which local inspectors imposed arbitrary rules such as landscaping that had nothing to do with public health and safety.It wasnt just an issue of local control and money, she said.Horn said his agency opposed turning the job over to fire officials because there are hundreds of fire districts across the state, including more than a dozen in Jefferson County alone, that have their own rules. He said schools and his agency believed fire inspections should be uniform and left to the state so school districts could use the same construction designs and cut costs.Fire officials say local codes are necessary because weather conditions are different in the mountains than on the Front Range.Lawmakers have approved a proposal to allow local fire departments to do their own inspections, with the state stepping in only if it cant be done locally. But it requires rules on what codes need to be enforced before it can go into effect, and those rules have not been written, the fire chiefs said.State building official Eric Gillespie, who replaced Horn, told The Associated Press that his boss, Richard Piper, took away his authority to issue occupancy certificates earlier this year after he ordered students in an Aurora charter school to move out when he found numerous fire code violations.He said Piper allowed the Lotus School for Excellence, with about 150 middle school students and teachers, to remain open in February despite violations such as a lack of fire escapes, fire alarms and sprinkler systems. He also said Piper issued the certificate of occupancy, even though he is not certified as an inspector.Piper refused to discuss his relationship with Gillespie and referred all other questions to the attorney generals office because, he said, it involved a personnel matter.In response to the state audit, the Division of Oil and Public Safety promised to improve record-keeping to determine what inspections are needed. It also hired outside consultants to check 150 school buildings built within the past two years. Officials said that job is nearly complete.Don Mares, executive director of the Department of Labor & Employment, which oversees Oil and Public Safety, told state lawmakers he realized there were serious problems with the program after he took over as executive director earlier this year and hired an inspector with more experience to do inspections.In 2005 and 2006, the division said, it reviewed and approved 305 school construction projects. Most were along the Front Range urban corridor. Since the state allots only one day for each inspection, including driving time, communities like Craig and Durango on the Western Slope have never seen an inspector.The inspection program is funded by school inspection fees. In 2006, the division collected $302,100 from contractors. It spent $279,000 to inspect schools, regulate explosives and examine carnivals and amusement parks.