(WMC-TV) - Even if your child knows the drill when a fire alarm goes off at school, the Action News Five Investigators found their path to safety is sometimes compromised at public and private schools in Memphis, Shelby County, Bartlett, and Germantown.
Sunday marks the 55th anniversary of one of the deadliest school fires in history. In 1958, 92 children died in a fire at Our Lady of Angels in Chicago. The tragedy sparked sweeping school fire safety regulations nationwide.
The Investigators combed through hundreds of school fire inspection reports in Shelby County to find out if your child's school is playing with fire. Nearly 800 fire marshal inspection reports from the past two years were reviewed.
"The state requires that you should be able to come out of any classroom and just about find two paths of exit," said Fire Marshal Howard McNatt, who shared dangers he looks for during an inspection.
That means exit signs must be working.
At Southwind High School, the fire marshal found 14 exit signs were not working properly. Nine were on the fritz at Christ the Rock Academy.
"You need to be able to see which direction you're gonna go because you get all the way back in this building and turn the lights off and you won't find your way out," said McNatt. "Check to make sure the door opens the full width."
Christ the Rock Christian Academy principal Carol Hughey says their broken exit signs were repaired in time for a follow-up inspection last week.
Doors not only need to open easily but also need to close when the fire alarm is tripped to guide students toward the closest exit and keep fire from spreading.
"These are held open by a magnet," said McNatt.
At Bartlett Elementary inspectors found doors throughout the school that would not close completely because they had been propped open which weakened the hinges.
There were 14 reports of boxes and furniture in hallways or blocking emergency exits.
"The code says [a] hallway has got to be a minimum width, and you have to maintain that. Anything you put in that corridor makes it smaller," said McNatt.
Another hazard: too much artwork on the walls. Artwork was over the limit more than 50 times in hallways or classrooms.
"If you had an appliance plugged in that shorted and caught on fire it would run all the way across and around the room," said McNatt.
Absolutely nothing is allowed to hang from the ceiling. Briarcrest High School had to take down a hanging pinata.
The Director of Communications at Briarcrest High School, Beth Rooks, said the school has complied "with everything the fire marshal advises is the safest for the children."
A required annual sprinkler system inspection was overdue on 22 reports.
"In a ‘sprinklered' building you have to maintain 18 inches of clearance below that sprinkler head," said McNatt.
Items too close to a sprinkler head could keep water from getting to the fire. The Investigators found that violation eight times.
Inspectors always note missing ceiling tiles. If heat escapes through the opening it delays activating the sprinkler system.
Some of the highest temperatures generated inside a school happened in the kitchen, and that is why extra precautions are taken in those areas. Many school kitchens have a sophisticated fire suppression system up in the hood, and it has to be inspected twice a year.
Kitchen hoods in some older Shelby County Schools do not meet the current fire code.
Officials say it is not a violation because they are inspected once a month and as money becomes available all school kitchens will be brought up to the current code.
"All of these filters are designed to collect any grease," said McNatt.
The drama club at Southwind High was asking for drama when seven deep fryers were found in their concession stand; the maximum is two.
Another infraction the Investigators found includes extension cords used as permanent wiring.
Last year at Arlington Middle School inspectors found freezers and vending machines in the teacher's lounge plugged into a power strip.
Parents say even one bad mark on a fire inspection is one too many.
"They need to pay more attention to it you know," said grandparent Donald Brown. "We're paying taxes and that's what it's for, you know?"
Becca Priddy with the Shelby County PTA says parents also play a role in school fire safety by knowing how to spot a fire hazard.
"In a school you're so wrapped up in the day-to-day business of teaching children that some of those things you may not recognize. Whereas a parent coming in with fresh eyes can you know see that," said Priddy.
Priddy's advice to parents is do not be afraid to ask school administrators.
Schools with violations must provide a Plan of Corrective Action to the state fire marshal within 60 days of an inspection.
A spokesperson for Shelby County School District says all reports are up to date and all issues have been corrected for the 2012-2013 inspection reports. Administrators with the private schools mentioned in our report say they too have fixed the problems.
The SCS spokesperson, Stefani Everson, released the following statement:
SCS receives, from the City of Memphis division of Fire Services, an annual comprehensive school inspection report. Once we have received the inspection report, we generate work orders and plan of corrective actions to address the concerns listed on the report.
All reports are up to date and all issues have been corrected for the 2012-2013 inspection reports. You can request to see the fire inspection report for your child's school at the front office.
See an interactive map with hundreds of school fire inspection results here. Once in the map, click on the red dot and you'll find infractions found at your child's school from the past two years.
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