News13 Investigates: State fire inspections at Horry County schools

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – It's a school district's top responsibility to not only help your child learn, but keep them safe in the process.

A 2013 News13 Investigation revealed many Horry County schools went years without a complete state fire inspection – some as many as five. What we found prompted former South Carolina Fire Marshal Shane Ray to propose new regulations to address the issue.

So did those regulations pass and are your child's schools now being inspected annually by the state?

We sent a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request to the South Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal in September to find out. Spokeswoman Lesia Kudelka told us due to state record retention schedules, the Office of the State Fire Marshal only had documents for the past three years.

We found the state had only a handful of records on file for complete school fire inspections in Horry County between January 2013 and September 2016. Those inspections were performed at the Scholars Academy – which was classified as new school construction, and schools within North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach city limits – municipalities with a local fire marshal on staff at its fire department.

Of the more than 25 inspection reports sent to News13, a majority pertained to instances of building additions, fire lanes, and new portable classrooms.

"The OSFM is required by Regulations 71-8301.3.B to work in conjunction with Office of School Facilities to ensure that a fire and life safety inspection is performed prior to occupancy of all new school construction, additions and renovations," Kudelka told News13 in an e-mail.

Kudelka said the Office of the State Fire Marshal will also perform inspections to "investigate complaints that are received from the public or from a local fire official. Otherwise, the OSFM performs routine school inspections as time allows."

Kudelka says priority for inspections are given to schools based on building age, the presence of sprinkler systems and its last date of inspection.

After receiving our FOIA request, we asked to speak on camera with the state fire marshal, but our request was declined. We were asked to submit any questions we had via e-mail and waited more than two weeks for a response.

We wanted to know how the state can guarantee and prove schools are safe if it is not conducting full fire inspections with a fire marshal each year.

"School districts and school administrators are ultimately responsible for school safety," Kudelka said. "I encourage the schools on a local level to partner with their local fire departments."

She stated while the Office of the State Fire Marshal is legislatively and contractually obligated to perform, schools aren't one of them. When asked if the policies proposed by Chief Ray were in effect, she replied, "Currently, there are no regulations applicable to the OSFM that require annual school inspections. The OSFM did not propose regulation changes for the 2017 legislative session."

However, Kudelka later said the regulations proposed by Ray passed, but "amended the following year to allow the parties time to form a plan for accomplishing the inspections."

We also took our findings to Horry County Schools – to find out how it is getting around the issue. District spokeswoman Teal Britton says the district makes use of its facilities team and school safety committees to perform fire and safety checks at each school.

"We do multiple things in house to ensure safety, but the responsibility for doing those inspections themselves rests with an outside agency," Britton said.

Britton says the effort requires checks of exits, electrical systems, chemicals, storage, emergency action plans, monthly visual inspections and annual fire protection inspections.

"Even if the state fire marshal's office was able to inspect on a more frequent basis, we would still continue to take these steps because it's what we need to do," she added.

Those steps are taken at schools within the City of Myrtle Beach and City of North Myrtle Beach, despite more frequent inspections by each city's respective fire marshal.

City of Myrtle Beach Fire Marshal Bruce Arnel says his department was asked by the Office of the State Fire Marshal to perform school inspections due to a lack of resources.

"They were reaching out to local authorities to find out if they had the resources to do the school inspections," he said. "The Horry County School District is very proactive when it comes to doing these inspections."

We asked Arnel if the school district's preventative measures compared to an inspection his fire team performs, and he said while there are similarities, it's best to leave the job to a professional. Arnel says the district is doing what it can and has certainly developed a positive working relationship with area fire marshals.

"I know the school staff in a lot of these schools are doing the best they can with what we call ‘self-inspections,'" Arnel noted. "That's not good enough. I think that it's very important that these schools be inspected by a professional. We're not being nit-picky by any means. We're not there to punish them in any way. We're there to make sure there's a safe environment for the children that are using that school."

When Kudelka was asked what other departments and regions were asked to perform voluntary school fire inspections, we did not receive a list of jurisdictions that were reached out to. Kudelka said, "The OSFM has asked local fire marshals to notify the deputy state fire marshals in their regions if they intend to perform the school inspections. The purpose of that notification is so that our deputy does not duplicate efforts."

The reports completed by local fire marshals "are not required to submit their inspection reports to the OSFM," Kudelka said. However, Kudelka says local fire departments that receive 1 percent state funds are required to report the total number of inspections, violations found and violations corrected each quarter.

While the state continues to make an effort to get extra help for inspections on the local level – it is not leading to annual inspections for every school in Horry County. State Senator Greg Hembree (R – North Myrtle Beach) said more than three years later, it's now an issue of liability and accountability.

Hembree said he was told after our original report aired that regulations were in the works and creating state law wasn't necessary.

"We're right back to where we started and I'm quite inclined to look at a state law change," Hembree said. "Regulations haven't happened. You give [them] a chance to say what they were [going to] do, but for whatever reason, that's not happened."

Hembree says, hands down, making annual school fire inspections happen would require more money and people at the state level – and continued local help.

"Fundamentally, we have to have one person who ultimately needs to be accountable for seeing this job gets done," he explained. "That would be my goal in introducing legislation – that the buck has to stop with somebody and the proper person is the state fire marshal."

Because of what we found, Hembree told News13 he would re-initiate talks on the issue with the Office of the State Fire Marshal. He says if needed, legislation requiring annual school fire inspections could get filed in the current session.

Britton says until new regulations are developed or a state law is created, teams at Horry County Schools will continue making sure your child's school is fire safe.

"It's not a once a day job or once a year job or once a month job," she noted. "It's an everyday job of ensuring safety."

The Office of the State Fire Marshal says it will continue working towards the goal of accomplishing annual school inspections for every school in the state, but will not reveal details of any new regulations until they are finalized with local jurisdictions and the state.

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