- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

D.C. fire officials have cited public schools for hundreds of fire-code violations that school officials say have been repaired but have yet to be verified by the fire department, according to school officials and internal school documents.
The discrepancy came to light yesterday after two suspicious fires at Dunbar Senior High School, which led to the discovery of several code violations. Fire investigators believe the fires were set intentionally.
"This could potentially be a very serious situation," D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said. "Once a building is occupied, you have to have an easy means of egress," he said, adding that the locked doors could have made evacuating the building difficult.
Because the fires started before 8 a.m., not many students were in the building, he said, adding that no one was injured. He said he had often encountered minor fire-code violations at city schools, "but I never have come across something like this."
School officials downplayed the fire-code violations at Dunbar, saying they have been repaired.
"There were three fire code violations identified and they have been corrected," said Louis Erste, chief operating officer for the school system.
Mr. Etter confirmed last night that the three fire-code violations at Dunbar padlocked doors, a malfunctioning fire-alarm system and an expired fire extinguisher were rectified.
"There's no need for reinspection," said Mr. Etter, who added there was written notification for the three violations.
Since September, the fire department has found 155 fire-code violations at seven of 14 schools inspected so far, according to an internal schools report and school sources. The report also says the school system has been cited for a total of 2,165 violations, which school officials say have been recently repaired.
Typically two or three violations turn up and are fixed instantly, said R.C. Garcia, the school system's facilities manager.
"Many are minimal infractions and are being abated," said Mr. Garcia.
He said some violations such as doors that do not close properly or ceiling tiles that do not fit into their hangers are minor infractions.
The internal report showed that the majority of violations are not as serious as those found at Dunbar. The report also shows that about 24 of the 2,165 violations remain unfixed.
The most recent violations between Sept. 27 and yesterday have been found at Draper Elementary, Ferebee-Hope Elementary, Garfield Elementary, Green Elementary, Hendley Elementary, McGogney Elementary and Birney Elementary.
School sources yesterday said a total of 14 of the city's 146 public schools have been inspected so far.
The seven schools have October dates for the fire department to recheck them to ensure the violations have been repaired, the report states. Only one, Birney Elementary, was rechecked. School officials said they have no control over when the fire department rechecks the schools.
In 1997, a federal judge ordered the D.C. school system to correct all fire-code violations after a school advocacy group, Parents United for D.C. Schools, filed a lawsuit that is still pending. A school official said privately that administrators expect to soon ask a judge to lift the order because of the school system's success in reducing violations.
Meanwhile, inspectors were investigating the Dunbar fires.
One fire that started under a desk in a third-floor classroom burned the desk down and charred several lockers and the carpet around it, said Mr. Etter. Paper and pieces of wood, like pencils, appeared to have been used to start the fire.
A second fire broke out in a fourth-floor boys' restroom among a pile of plastic bags.
Both fires were quickly brought under control, and students were returned to their classrooms before lunch.


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