State fire marshal draws attention to schools with inadequate basic safety maintenance | #schoolsaftey

During a School Safety Advisory Commission meeting on Tuesday, Alabama’s State Fire Marshal, Scott Pilgreen, drew attention to inadequate basic school safety measures he and his office have noticed. The advisory commission provides recommendations to the Alabama legislature regarding school security.

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Maintainance of safety measures such as door locks and fire systems were issues discussed among the group.

“I’m not trying to indict anybody in these schools, but you talk to the leadership of the school you get a mixed bag. Some of them are extremely apologetic and want to get on it quickly to get it fixed. A lot, ‘we don’t have the money,’ and they want to point to the superintendent’s office. When that happens, my people call me,” said Pilgreen.

“I can tell you right now, in the last two months, in numerous school systems ranging from north Alabama to extreme south Alabama, east and west, we have put a number of schools on what we call fire watch because their systems are down or have been down. It’s a problem,” he said.

Pilgreen said the fire watch program is not meant to be indefinite.

According to the Alabama Fire Marshal’s website, the fire watch program provides “requirements for an owner or responsible party when adequate egress is not available, when demolition of a building with hazardous conditions exists, or when a fire alarm or sprinkler system are in disrepair or nonfunctional. Personnel will conduct periodic patrols of the entire facility every 15 minutes if the facility has people sleeping, is an institutional facility, or an occupied assembly facility. Facilities not meeting the previous conditions shall be patrolled every 30 minutes.”

The people conducting fire watch patrols have to meet certain duties:

  • Fire watch personnel shall have access to one approved means of communication
  • Know the exact address of the property and how to report a fire or other emergency condition by calling 9-1-1.
  • Fire watch personnel shall be familiar with the buildings and property and have an accepted written plan for patrolling the property.
  • Fire watch personnel shall be trained in the use of fire extinguishers have access to all facility fire extinguishers and know their location.
  • Fire watch personnel shall have knowledge of and be trained in the facility’s evacuation plan in the event of a fire. They shall be able to communicate with non-English speaking residents well enough to give an evacuation order.
  • Fire watch personnel shall not be permitted, while on duty, to perform any other duties.
  • Fire watch personnel shall not be impaired and shall remain awake and alert at all times.
  • Fire watch personnel shall keep a log of fire watch-related activities. The log shall include; the address of the facility, the time of each patrol, the name of the fire watch person, and notes for other related activities performed.

“Fire watch can be, it can tax that school’s ability to provide its functions,” said Pilgreen. “For those who don’t know fire watch is a person or multiple people, depending on the size of the campus, all they do is patrol the campus and all of the buildings. They are there in the early mornings so that if something happens, that’s your alarm. That’s the only thing that that person or those people can do. It taxes the school systems, particularly those that don’t have the resources.”

Pilgreen said the issue is widespread and is a greater percentage than many would realize.

“Whatever this commission ultimately reports back to the Speaker, you need to have something in there that draws attention to this issue. Unless we fix the fundamental stuff, and maintain the fundamental stuff that is already there, I’m telling you, you can put all the technology in a school building regardless of how new or old it is, and it will not be maintained. We have to have something that holds the people who manage those schools and our school systems accountable. Quite frankly, I am tired of my people going in and finding this problem recurring over and over again. That’s what’s going to get our students and our staffs, regardless of if its K-12, it’s going to put them in harm’s way quicker than anything,” said Pilgreen.

He added any advanced technology may help identify where a bad actor is in a school, but the initial safety and security measures such as locks on doors would have prevented the person from entering to begin with.

One member of the advisory commission said the walk-throughs and monitoring are being done, but there needed to be more teeth for enforcement when a problem is identified.

The fire marshal’s office does have the ability to issue a fire marshal’s order which would shut a school down, but Pilgreen said that wouldn’t help anyone as children and staff would be displaced. However, if there are significant life safety issues, there would be no choice.

“It should never get to that point. That’s the reason I am bringing it up today,” he said.

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Commission member, Proncey Robertson, said they need to identify an accountability measure that is strong enough to result in action being taken but doesn’t shut down a school. He pointed to a new law in Tennessee that requires all exterior doors to be locked at all times. Any law enforcement officer can check the doors. If a door is unlocked, there could be a financial penalty for the violation.

Another suggestion from State Represenative Terri Collins was when funding is opened up for the Advancement and Technology [Fund] that a certain percentage of it should be required to go towards security maintenance. Collins said the advisory board needs to determine what that percentage looks like.

Dwight Satterfield, Deputy Superintendent for Decatur City Schools, suggested the funding should come from a local fund because school leadership at a certain level is not involved with the Advancement and Technology funding. He said the money earmarked in the state’s budget specifically for school safety during the 2023 legislative session was the best funding source schools have had for maintenance.

He added that telling his staff that any issue with lighting or locks needed to come directly to him or the safety coordinator has also been beneficial.

“It wasn’t making it to my level. It went to a custodian. It may have gone to an assistant principal or facilities director and I didn’t know it. I’ve got one campus that has 122 exterior doors. I couldn’t keep up with every door,” said Satterfield to the commission.

A request has been made to the State Fire Marshal’s Office for a list of schools on fire watch.

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