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10 News Investigators: Elementary school fire hazards | News

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10 News Investigators: Elementary school fire hazards

TAMPA, Fla. -- Most elementary schools in Tampa Bay conduct monthly fire drills, and now lockdown drills as well.  But the 10 News Investigators found teachers and administrators still have room for improvement when it comes to preparing for possible emergencies.

10 News reviewed hundreds of fire inspection reports for local elementary schools. While most got passing grades from school district fire marshals, there was evidence a large amount of hazards were not immediately addressed.

The most common citations from fire inspectors were blocked emergency exits and walls covered with flammable materials.  Some violations even included padlocked emergency doors and emergency windows that were too difficult to open.


Because inspectors only file reports once a year in Pinellas County and twice a year in Hillsborough County, there's no telling how well the problems they identify are addressed. But in their unannounced annual tests, inspectors found schools with the same violations for five or more consecutive years.

For example, Booker T. Washington Elementary in Tampa was cited for blocked emergency exit windows for five straight years, and inappropriate storage in a restroom for six straight years.

Sexton Elementary in St. Petersburg was cited consecutively for flammable furniture in classrooms, blocked emergency exits, broken emergency lights, and improper extension cords.

While many of the citations seem small, inspectors point them out because they are all risk factors for fire or could prevent kids from exiting quickly. In 2009, an extension cord sparked a large fire at Seffner's McDonald Elementary. Fortunately, the fire was on a Saturday when no students were in the classrooms.

In October 2012, South Tampa's Gorrie Elementary was cited for 191 fire violations, the most in Hillsborough or Pinellas County.  For a third straight year, the building was cited for difficult-to-open emergency windows.

Principal Marjorie Sandler tells 10 News the school responded quickly to most of the issues, but some of the problems, such as the windows, take months to address. When an inspector went back in January to see if the problems had been fixed, only 88 of 191 had been "cleared." Work orders had been placed for several others but not yet completed.

A district spokesman said the age of Gorrie Elementary, one of the city's oldest schools, could be to blame for the citations. But Tampa Fire Marshal Milton Jenkins said it's no excuse.

"At this point, all the schools should be in compliance," Jenkins said. 

And while Tampa Fire Rescue used to perform inspections at city schools, the School District of Hillsborough County now polices itself with its own fire marshal.

But if a restaurant, church, or bank fails to fix fire hazards, they face fines from the city's fire department and code enforcement. While local fire agencies may have authority to penalize schools, 10 News found no evidence any have in Tampa Bay.

At schools in unincorporated Hillsborough County and Plant City, fire inspectors from the city or county typically join school fire inspectors, who are also state-certified.  The same typically takes place in most areas of Pinellas County.

One of the most dangerous, and common, hazards in classrooms are decorations on the walls. While many teachers wallpaper classrooms with student artwork, fire inspectors repeatedly stress to principals that classrooms don't typically have fire sprinklers, and one small spark could quickly turn an artwork-covered classroom into an inferno.

But not all the schools struggled with inspections.

Among the best elementary school inspections 10 News came across: Tampa's LLT Academy, Tampa's Palm River ElementaryAlafia Elementary, and Learning Gate Community.

Most of this investigation was researched through public records requests made to local school districts and fire departments. 

10 News also requested local fire alarm inspections from the School District of Hillsborough County, but no documents have been provided yet.


Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.


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