Washington Co. schools violated fire code in intruder safety upgrades

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With yet another deadly school shooting last week in Texas, teachers and administrators continue to look for the best ways to protect children, but Tennessee State Fire Marshal records show it’s easy to overcompensate and put kids at risk in other ways.

Fire inspection pictures show four Washington County, Tennessee, Schools in violation of the state fire code in 2015 after teachers and administrators changed doors in the name of active shooter safety.

The pictures show barricades on doors at Daniel Boone High School and Grandview Elementary School, carabiners used to keep doors locked at Grandview, Sulphur Springs Elementary School and West View Elementary School, a bolt lock on a door at Sulphur Springs and a locking device system on a door at Daniel Boone.

“We have been in contact with the Washington County Schools about these violations,” Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Communications Director Kevin Walters said. “The barricades were first found during the 2015/2016 school year. Our staff tells me most of them were removed by 2016/2017, but a few were found on non-classroom doors. They have all been removed since. All of the carabiners and other barricade devices have been removed.”

After a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and school district partnered with an outside consultant to improve school safety. Assistant Director of Schools Dr. Bill Flanary said at the consultant’s urging, some teachers and administrators made changes.

“We had no reason to think what they were saying wasn’t completely legal with the fire marshal,” Dr. Flanary said. “We would never do anything intentionally illegal.”

While they acted with the best intentions, the changes likely rendered the doors meant to stop the spread of fire and smoke useless and potentially made it nearly impossible for kids to escape in the event of a fire. We showed Jonesborough Fire Department Chief Phil Fritts the pictures.

“You’ve actually made it harder for people to get out and when people panic they get tunnel vision and they can’t see their way out,” Chief Fritts said.

Chief Fritts said the fire code is essential to protecting kids and adults.

“The fire codes have come about over the years through trial and error,” he said. “It has reduced the number of fire fatalities that we have nationwide. We just got to sit down together and talk about it, because nobody, I’m sure, means to do anything wrong, but we’re not talking with each other is the problem.”

A spokesperson for the State Fire Marshal’s office said communication is critical when it comes to security improvements.

“We highly encourage any school that is considering changes to its exits or classroom doors or removing fire alarm pull stations to contact the State Fire Marshal’s Office prior to performing any work,” Walters said. “Depending on the project, architectural plans may be required.”

While both school shootings and school fires are reason for concern, numbers from the State Fire Marshal’s Office show the fire is more likely, on average, occurring at least once a week at schools across the state. Thankfully, the state reports no school fire fatalities in recent decades.

While Washington County administrators wouldn’t let us see or film the doors, citing safety concerns, Dr. Flanary said the school district has learned a valuable lesson from the situation when it comes to planning intruder safety improvements.

“We’re not going to do nothing and our teachers are not going to do nothing and our administers are not going to sit by and just wait on something to happen. We’re going to be proactive, but we’re going to do it within the parameters of state and federal law,” he said.

While the flagged fire door issues are now fixed, 2018 inspection records show fire marshals continue to find other problems with fire doors at most Washington County schools. In fact, since 2015, fire inspection records show at least 10 Washington County schools cited a year for fire door deficiencies.

Dr. Flanary said those issues are not unusual and easily fixable.

“The reports that we have right now are very common,” he said.

The administrator said the district has two maintenance workers who are assigned to the school system’s thousands of doors. Dr. Flanary said the two workers are constantly checking doors.

“Once school is out we hit it even harder, because we can have maintenance people in and out of our buildings without disrupting our classes,” he said.

According to the school district, Safariland was the consultant that recommended the changes. We reached out to Safariland Friday and again Monday, but have yet to hear back. 

Below are fire inspection reports for each Washington County school:

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