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Cape Coral--More Florida Schools Sited for Fire Safety Problems

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  • Cape Coral--More Florida Schools Sited for Fire Safety Problems

    Schools fail fire code check

    District has until June 30 to fix problems

    By JENNIFER BOOTH REED, [email protected]

    • Read for yourself: Letter from insurance commissioner reminding school officials of June 30 compliance deadline

    Local fire marshals are scrutinizing schools in compliance with a new state law, and at least one will recommend shutting about 60 classrooms in two schools unless the district fixes fire code violations.

    The law, which took effect last July, requires local fire authorities to inspect schools annually. The first set of reports is due to the state fire marshal on June 30.

    Fire officials can recommend closing entire schools or parts of schools if they detect deficiencies. They also can ask school districts to write corrective action plans.

    The threat of closure calls to mind the 2000 fire code crisis when the state almost didn’t allow Lee schools to open on time for the start of the school year.

    The system still is trying to fix the code violations made public at that time.

    Those include the problems Bonita Springs Fire Marshal Dave Davenport sees at Spring Creek Elementary and Bonita Springs Middle School, where some of the walls are not fire-rated, posing a risk to students and staff. He doesn’t want people occupying the approximately 60 rooms unless the problem is fixed.

    “It’s not new. They’ve been talking about it for some time. Under the state fire marshal rules, that’s considered one of the problem areas — a serious or life safety deficiency,” Davenport said.

    Changes in the law mean schools now must comply with state building codes and fire marshal regulations rather than the more lenient Department of Education facilities rules.

    Plans to fix the problems are already in the works, Lee schools Superintendent James Browder said. He put a hold on new construction because of lingering code issues and decided to hasten needed repairs.

    “We’re gonna comply with the law and do things as quickly as we can to make it work,” Browder said.

    Many of the problems Davenport and other fire officials brought to Browder’s attention already appear on his “to do” list.

    Browder’s fire safety repair plan allocates $1.5 million to fix problems at Spring Creek in 2003 and $3 million to fix problems at Bonita Middle in 2004.

    District and fire officials must negotiate and agree to an action plan and timeline for repairs.

    Most of the schools Cape Coral fire inspectors flagged as problematic also appear on Browder’s list. They include Cape Elementary, Cape High, Gulf Elementary, Gulf Middle and Pelican Elementary.

    Cape Coral Fire Chief Bill van Helden said the law gives school districts 60 days to write a corrective action plan.

    “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “We have to make sure they’re satisfied with No. 1 their corrections and No. 2 their timeliness.”

    Problems may be broader than what’s listed on Browder’s repair list, suggested district safety director Ernie Scott, whose department also conducted a fire safety review.

    Scott said portable classrooms on several campuses are placed too close together.

    All told, Scott thinks about 20 schools have serious issues.

    Browder said he’ll amend his fire safety repair plan as needed once he sees the reports.

    Lehigh Acres fire inspector Neil Little said he has been trying to call attention to the portables problem for years.

    “I believe at two schools portables are too close together. I have two of the schools where I have no access for firefighting equipment,” Little said. “I’ve addressed this problem for years and they don’t seem to think it’s a priority.”

    He and other fire officials hope new oversight by the state fire marshal will put teeth into fire code enforcement. But Little said he’ll wait and see how the process goes — the state fire marshal’s office is severely understaffed, he said.

    The new law requires school districts to do their own inspections, followed by the fire district’s independent review. School administrators then review the fire officials’ report, merge the two inspections and send the reports to Tallahassee.

    Such collaboration may yield creative solutions.

    San Carlos Fire Marshal Tom Beard, for example, said he has been talking to a fire prevention specialist about San Carlos Park Elementary, which has the same design and same problems as Spring Creek.

    He said the specialist suggested adding sprinklers to the school instead of building permanent walls, an answer that could save the district money. The reports also may shed light on the extent of code violations in Lee schools.

    Browder said he still can’t get his arms around the problem.

    “The biggest thing we’re doing right now is collecting accurate data. There was so much out there. It was so disjointed,” he said.

    Fire officials in some parts of the county said code violations have nearly disappeared from their schools — a giant leap from where the buildings were a few years ago.

    Others say many of the problems could be resolved simply with more staff attention to safety.

    Fire officials credited Browder for prioritizing safety and halting construction until code issues in both existing schools and those planned for construction are addressed.

    “Dr. Browder’s got a real good idea — don’t build anything new until you do it right,” Beard said. “We’re pretty excited about that.”
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  • #2
    Lee schools seek firm to help with fire safety problems

    Friday, June 27, 2003

    By DAVE BREITENSTEIN, [email protected]

    Lee County schools will begin looking for a professional firm today that will assume control of all fire safety violations plaguing the school district, overseeing an initial repair list that already has topped $19.6 million and encompasses 31 schools.

    Superintendent James Browder said the district will issue a formal request for proposals today to coordinate all fire safety projects. He envisions a firm with expertise in school fire codes, facilities concerns, financial issues and the ability to evaluate and prioritize projects.

    Lee County came under scrutiny three years ago from the state Department of Education and local fire officials for hundreds of fire safety violations that went uncorrected for years, with 64 of 68 schools failing their inspections. After an initial push to fix violations, repairs slacked off during the past year before new problems renewed concerns this spring.

    Although the district compiled a new list of repairs, costs and a timeline, Browder said the work is too massive to handle internally.

    "It doesn't cut the mustard," he said of the current repair list. "What we have is a list that isn't a comprehensive building-by-building list of what needs to be done."

    Browder said there were several lists outlying dozens of safety and construction projects, but no standard catalog of priority repairs. Browder assigned the issue to Mike McNerney, administrator on assignment, who found issues were not being completed because a lack of coordination stalled projects.

    "We had a lot of hard-working people," McNerney said. "Their hearts and minds were in the right place, but what we lacked was the right process."

    Bonita Springs fire officials have threatened to temporarily close Spring Creek Elementary and Bonita Middle until the district addresses major safety issues. Inspectors cited interior walls that were not fireproof and inadequate emergency exits. The school district could tear down those walls and construct pre-approved walls, but instead will add less expensive sprinkler systems.

    The district has estimated replacing the fire alarm and interior walls at Spring Creek would cost $1.5 million, and those same projects plus remodeling would cost $3 million at Bonita Middle. Crews from Simplex are replacing Spring Creek's alarm. Browder said the new firm could study projects such as those and possibly recommend cost-saving alternatives, such as adding sprinklers instead of reconstruction.

    The Lee County Fire Safety Task Force, which was formed in July 2000 during the safety crisis, reconvened Thursday night to address progress in meeting fire codes. Some members, however, are not satisfied with some major issues, such as fire alarm deficiencies that remain on inspection reports year after year, and easy-to-correct violations such as unapproved doorstops and doors that swing in the wrong direction.

    Estero Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield told Browder to settle only on a fire protection engineer to oversee projects. Otherwise, he said, the district will find itself with just a "life safety expert" who is not qualified for the job.

    Browder also asked fire officials to assist the district as it builds 40 schools over the next decade. Browder said the district will begin to standardize its schools, duplicating structures across the county to trim design costs. However, using the same blueprints has magnified problems with indoor air quality and fire code flaws prevalent in several schools built from the same model.

    "I'd be careful with prototypes," advised Jack Villagomez, who oversees fire safety issues with the Department of Education. "You can build the same mistake 100 times."

    Cape Coral fire representatives also notified Browder of some design problems at a new school being built there, and school facilities officials plan to address the issue with contractors this morning, demanding a refund for unnecessary design recommendations.

    Issues like those, Browder said, should never happen.

    "I'm sick of this," he said. "I just want it done."
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.


    • #3
      Follow Up

      Bonita Daily News

      Potential closure of two public schools thwarted thanks to sprinkler system agreement

      Wednesday, July 2, 2003

      By DAVE BREITENSTEIN, [email protected]

      The fire marshal in Bonita Springs will not pursue the closure of two public schools that contain nonfireproof walls, instead accepting the Lee County School District's plan to add sprinkler systems as a less expensive alternative.

      Fire Marshal David Davenport had notified county officials in May that interior walls at Spring Creek Elementary and Bonita Middle were not fire-rated, meaning walls could not stop the spread of a fire. Knocking down those walls and installing new ones could cost $1 million or more, but the School District proposed sprinkler systems for the schools for an estimated $200,000 each. That plan will suffice, Davenport said.

      "We're really pleased that they are meeting the intent (of our request)," he said. "Sprinkling it solves a lot of those problems quickly."

      Seven other Lee County schools were built from similar architectural blueprints and will welcome new sprinkler systems instead of major wall renovation projects. Sprinkler designs should be approved this month before companies bid on the projects, said to Mike McNerney, executive assistant for administration. Actual construction work, however, would not begin until the school year starts in August.

      "All of this work will have to be done at nights and on the weekends," McNerney said Tuesday.

      Projects should be completed by Thanksgiving at the latest. Davenport said he would not require the pair of Bonita schools to hire fire watchers or any other temporary measure during the interim period before sprinkler projects are completed. Fire alarm systems also are being replaced at Spring Creek Elementary and Bonita Middle, and that project should conclude before classes resume on Aug. 11.

      All Lee County schools came under scrutiny from the Florida Department of Education three years ago when 64 of 68 schools did not pass their annual fire inspections. The School District was allowed to open its doors to students as long as Lee officials began tackling life-threatening fire code violations immediately, provided frequent status reports to Tallahassee, hired fire watchers to patrol hallways in some schools and met other requirements as directed.

      A task force created in 2000 reconvened last week to address recent progress, with Superintendent James Browder assuring members that projects that had been lingering over the years would be addressed during the coming twelve months. A majority of smaller-scale projects have been completed, but an initial list of major projects at 33 schools and district facilities totals an estimated $20 million. Browder is seeking a professional firm to manage all fire safety projects.

      Bonita Middle Principal John Basel has said minor projects that could be completed by school staff have been taken off the list, and those requiring district-level assistance have been documented and forwarded to county staffers.

      Spring Creek and Bonita Middle are both more than 20 years old and were built according to fire safety standards in place then.
      09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
      IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
      "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
      BMI Investigator
      The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.


      • #4
        Additional Story

        Schools to get sprinkler systems

        Move called cheaper than building walls

        By JENNIFER BOOTH REED, [email protected]

        Sprinkler systems
        Sprinkler systems will be added to the following schools:
        • Gulf Elementary
        • Heights Elementary
        • Pelican Elementary
        • Spring Creek Elementary
        • San Carlos Park Elementary
        • Sunshine Elementary
        • Bonita Springs Middle
        • Gulf Middle
        • Lehigh Acres Middle

        Lee County school officials have decided to install sprinkler systems in nine Lee elementary and middle schools as a way to rectify potential safety hazards and code violations.

        The interior walls of those schools are mostly temporary structures that do not meet the fire-rating standards prescribed by code.

        The schools were built in the late 1960s and 1970s, when educators espoused an open campus model. When the academic pendulum swung back to traditional, enclosed classrooms, school officials erected partitions to make rooms out of open spaces. The same two blueprints were used in all the buildings.

        District officials faced two choices: gut the schools and build permanent walls or add sprinkler systems, said Michael McNerney, the district’s executive assistant for administration. He doesn’t have a cost estimate yet, but he said sprinklers would be cheaper than building walls.

        Bonita Springs fire marshal David Davenport previously warned school administrators that parts of Spring Creek Elementary and Bonita Springs Middle School may have to be closed unless the system figured out a way to make those buildings safer.

        McNerney said fire officials, some of whom had suggested the sprinklers, agreed with the decision. All schools will open on time. Bonita Middle and Spring Creek top the list for sprinkler installment and will hopefully be done by Thanksgiving.

        McNerney hopes to have workers simultaneously work on sprinklers, alarm systems and technology upgrades. McNerney said he’s developing a timeline for the projects, and he still hopes to finish them within the 18-month window Superintendent James Browder imposed for code repairs.

        The district already had planned to work on code issues and fire safety upgrades in each of the nine schools, as well as 18 others, at a cost of roughly $20 million. That list recently had swelled from an estimated $11.2 million repair tab as fire and district officials carefully scrutinized code compliance.

        McNerney thinks that sprinkling the schools rather than rebuilding walls could save approximately $8 million, knocking the total cost back down to $12 million. Additionally, a $1.5 million federal grant will help pay for repairs at three schools.

        Some parents were glad to hear about the sprinklers, but they really hadn’t felt their children were unsafe.

        Bonita Springs Middle parent Debbie Gress said Principal John Basel had done everything he could to make the building safe.

        Back to Local & State
        09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
        IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
        "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
        BMI Investigator
        The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.


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