- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

D.C. fire department officials say all D.C. schools have been inspected for fire-code violations this year and those with violations have been reinspected contradicting school system documents that indicate that repairs have gone unchecked.
"The fire chief and the fire marshal indicate to me that all schools have been inspected and reinspected for abatement," said Alan Etter, spokesman for the fire department. "And they have started the process once again despite only being required to inspect once annually."
The issue of fire-code violations and inspections arose after two arsons at Dunbar Senior High School Tuesday morning led to the discovery of several code violations including padlocked doors and malfunctioning fire-alarm system and extinguishers.
"This could potentially be a very serious situation," Mr. Etter said.
No one was injured in the fires, which started about 8 a.m. under a desk in a third-floor classroom and among a pile of plastic in a fourth-floor boys' bathroom. Both fires quickly were brought under control and students returned to their classrooms before lunch, school and fire officials said.
School sources said yesterday that while some school inspections have been performed this year, they disputed that all have been completed.
Mr. Etter said the fire department would provide documentation of the inspections as soon as it becomes available.
The issue also follows the temporary closure of a building housing two charter schools last week due to fire-code violations.
Since September, the fire department has found 155 fire-code violations at seven of 14 D.C. 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 in the past year. All but 24 of those violations have been fixed, school officials say.
The school system's facilities director, R.C. Garcia, said the remaining violations involve doors that do not close properly or ceiling tiles that do not fit into their hangers. He calls them minor infractions the school system is working on.
School sources have told The Washington Times that 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. But the report says only one Birney Elementary has been rechecked.
School officials say they have no control over when the fire department inspects or reinspects schools.
School advocates say the issue is "an old and familiar story."
In 1992, a Superior Court 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. The suit was dismissed in 1997 after the school group found the school closures due to code violations too disruptive to children. That year, the schools opened three weeks late.
"We were concerned about the significant number of fires in the schools," said Mary Levy, the attorney who brought the suit on behalf of Parents United for D.C. Schools. "We have never had enough resources to ensure the fire department is continuing their inspections."
According to a six-page internal report written this spring dubbed "Front Burner," the fire department is having problems with building inspections.
Officials conducted 5,015 inspections from October 2000 through March 2001. The total of inspections for fiscal 2000 was 22,983. The goal for fiscal 2001 was 24,325.
Fire department officials were unable yesterday to provide the total number of inspections actually performed through October 2001 and how many were performed on schools.
"One would think that would be information readily available," said one city source privately. "This is safety information, for goodness sake."

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