WJTV News Channel 12 - SPECIAL REPORT: Schools failing fire alarm inspections

SPECIAL REPORT: Schools failing fire alarm inspections

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(WJHL) -

How would you feel if the fire alarm in your child's school didn't work? During the most recent fire inspections in one school system, fire marshals made that discovery four times at four different schools, forcing certified firefighters to stand guard on fire watch inside the schools - sometimes up to a week - until the problem was fixed.

The four schools weren't the only ones found to have problems when it comes to fire protection in our region.

In a special Community Watchdog investigation, we looked through almost 200 school fire inspections dating back to 2010 - many of them comprehensive inspections - and we found several issues highlighted by fire marshals.

School administrators say they welcome the detailed inspections, which help keep the schools up to code.

"We inspect it internally, but there's nothing like an outside set of eyes to confirm that you are safe and to identify anything you need to do make it more safe," Sullivan County Assistant Director of Schools Dr. Gene Johnson said.

"That would be a principal decision in concert with the director of schools," Dr. Johnson said. "If it's a minor problem, and that would be considered a minor problem, there's no cause for alarm."

Still, it was cause to have firefighters stationed in those schools until the problems were fixed.

"What we do immediately is go to a fire watch situation," Dr. Johnson said.

For a full week, Sullivan County volunteer firefighters stood on lookout inside Holston Elementary School while the school fixed its alarm system, Fire Chief Eric Wilson said.

"In order to continue with school without any interruption we sent some of our personnel down there to basically do a fire watch," Wilson said. "Basically walking the hallways, ensuring there's no smoke, no fires anywhere and they're there throughout the school day until everyone goes home."

Although the fire chief would prefer every fire alarm work at all times, he says that's just not realistic. In this case, he says the school system responded quickly.

"Usually, from time to time, somebody's going to have an issue," Wilson said. "It's not just the school system. It's a doctor's office, a Walmart, a Kmart, a residence. (The school system) took every step that was needed to keep everyone in the building safe. I think the county; they got on it quickly and made sure they got it fixed in a timely fashion. All of the steps that I am aware of were taken to make sure that the kids were safe."

The good news: Blountville Middle School's new system will let administrators know immediately if and when any fire alarm stops working.

"The panel itself has a battery backup," Dr. Johnson said. "The newer fire alarm systems have a trouble detector that if there's a problem in a pull system like this, it will create a trouble signal."

Not only that, Sullivan County says ahead of the upcoming school year, all of its principals will check the alarms for any problems.

"If there are any problems then, we'll fix them before kids are in the building," Dr. Johnson said. "The fire marshal's office is very proud that kids do not die. No kid has died as a result of a fire in a Tennessee school for many years and we want to help the fire marshal keep that record perfect."

Outside the middle and neighboring elementary school, Tate shared her relief.

"That's better," the mother said. "At least now they fixed it since they didn't know anything was wrong with it. At least now they fixed it."

Among the more general issues found during our investigation of all of the school systems we found:

23 schools with blocked exits

  • Towne Acres Elem. Johnson City
  • Lake Ridge Elem. Johnson City
  • SHHS ALC Johnson City
  • SHHS Vocational Johnson City
  • South Side Elem. Johnson City
  • Woodland Elem. Johnson City
  • Cherokee Elem. Johnson City
  • Mountain View Elem. Johnson City
  • North Side Elem. Johnson City
  • Johnson City
  • Science Hill High School Johnson City
  • Holston View Elem. Bristol
  • Sullivan North High School Sullivan County
  • Sullivan Gardens Sullivan County
  • Sullivan East High School Sullivan County
  • Holston Elementary and Middle Sullivan County
  • Sullivan Central HS Sullivan County
  • Central Heights Elementary Sullivan County
  • Bluff City Elementary Sullivan County
  • Innovation Academy (formerly Brookside Elementary) Sullivan County
  • Boones Creek Elementary School Washington County
  • Science Hill 8-9 Campus Johnson City
  • Lake Ridge Elem. Johnson City
  • Indian Trial Intermediate School Johnson City

14 schools where combustibles weren't stored properly

  • SHHS Vocational Johnson City
  • North Side Elem. Johnson City
  • Science Hill High School Johnson City
  • Haynesfield Bristol
  • Holston View Elem. Bristol
  • Tennessee High School Bristol
  • Anderson Elem. Bristol
  • Sullivan North High School Sullivan County
  • Sullivan Gardens Sullivan County
  • Mary Hughes School Sullivan County
  • Holston Elementary and Middle Sullivan County
  • Emmett Elementary Sullivan County
  • Innovation Academy (formerly Brookside Elementary) Sullivan County
  • Science Hill 8-9 Campus Johnson City

Schools where exit lights and signs weren't working

  • Sulphur Springs Elementary School Washington County
  • Jonesborugh Middle School Washington County
  • Jonesborough Elementary School Washington County

In the past, the Tennessee Fire Marshal's only did complete fire inspections once every few years, but that is changing.

"The State Fire Marshal's Office is conducting complete and comprehensive inspections of Tennessee schools every year beginning July 1, 2013," Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Public Information Officer Katelyn Abernathy said.

Dr. Johnson says he welcomes that.

"We inspect it internally, but there's nothing like an outside set of eyes to confirm that you are safe and to identify anything you need to do make it more safe," he said.


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