Fire hazards remain at some Wake Co. schools - WNCT

Fire hazards remain at some Wake Co. schools

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

More than a year after a WNCN investigation uncovered serious fire hazards in some Wake County schools, WNCN has found repeat violations and some inspections that aren't happening as often as the law requires.

Wake County's booming system includes 150,000 students.

"The last time we checked, we were dealing with the 16th largest school district in the United States," said Charlie Johnson, the chief deputy fire marshal for Wake County.

Johnson is in charge of making sure the school system is following the fire rules with regular inspections. For example, Johnson ensures the exit systems are maintained properly and the fire protection systems are in order.

The older the building, the more difficult those inspections become. Raleigh's 74-year-old Broughton High School is a prime example. WNCN's 2012 investigation found serious fire hazards there, including obstructed hallways, blocked escape windows, obstructed sprinklers and missing fire extinguishers.

Some of those problems -- obstructed hallways, blocked windows, missing fire extinguishers -- returned in a follow-up inspection.

At Holly Ridge Elementary, extension cords were used in place of permanent wiring. Similar problems were found at Wakefield and Wake Forest high schools.

Joe Desormeaux, the Wake County Public School System assistant superintendent for facilities, said "some of the repeats, it's because … it's just high use, so we could just fix it and then 6 months later when the fire marshal comes back through, it could be that that thing is malfunctioning again."

Desormeaux, who is in charge of facilities for all of Wake County's 165 schools, said some repeat issues could be an indication of crowding. That is something that $810 million in new financing recently passed by voters should help ease.

"A lot of these renovations will add capacity to existing schools," Desormeaux said. "That way the school in particular won't be as crowded at that particular school. It will also add more electrical receptacles, for example, to match up with the technology that's being used today, so there's less there will be extension cords running across the floor."

But there's another problem with Broughton's December 2012 inspection -- it's out of date.

Inspections are supposed to happen every 6 months, but Johnson said his department is short-staffed.

"We currently have two positions that are vacant in our office," Johnson said. "We're aggressively trying to fill those positions and find people who are qualified to perform those inspections."

Broughton isn't alone. Wake Forest was last inspected 13 months ago, and the same goes for Wakefield High.

But Johnson said critical issues noticed by school administrators will still be fixed promptly.

"If we have imminent, life and safety issues, if we have serious maintenance issues that are identified, we're certainly going to follow up on those," he said.

But with a lack of inspectors, finding those issues could take longer than they should.

And the violations can actually cost the school system money. Fire inspectors can charge $50 fines per repeat offense.

WNCN wanted to follow along with a fire inspector through a Wake County school, but the school system declined that request.

RELATED ARTICLES AND LINKS

* WNCN report: School fire dangers exposed

* Wake County Public School System website

* Wake County fire services page

Derick Waller

Derick is a reporter for WNCN covering crime, education, politics and just about everything in between. He has a knack for adapting to any story and consistently delivers information quickly across multiple platforms. More>>

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