News13 Investigation prompts school fire inspection legislation proposal

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – South Carolina Senator Greg Hembree (R-North Myrtle Beach) has filed new legislation in response to an ongoing News13 investigation into the lack of state fire inspections at area schools.

Our most recent investigation in February revealed a majority of Horry County’s public schools had not received a complete state fire inspection in more than three years.

The only schools with complete building fire inspections on file with the South Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal were within the City of Myrtle Beach and City of North Myrtle Beach – two municipalities with local resident fire marshals on staff.

Hembree filed S. 709 in Columbia on May 8. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Education.

S. 709 would require annual fire and safety inspections at occupied public schools in South Carolina. It would also ensure that those who conduct the inspections are approved and certified by the OSFM. Additionally, the bill creates standard reporting and follow-up inspection requirements and would charge the OSFM with setting “the amount of fees charged and collected for inspections.”

“This is an idea that is such common sense,” Hembree explained. “It’s hard for me to imagine who’s going to be opposed to it. If we don’t keep our kids safe while they’re at school, all the best teaching in the world doesn’t matter.”

We traveled to Columbia to meet with State Fire Marshal Jonathan Jones, to talk about the possibility of legislation.

“We’ve got to have a plan that meets the goal – that’s realistic and ultimately sustainable,” Jones said.

Jones says the two biggest issues any piece of legislation or regulations would be up against – funding and resources. Right now, 14 deputy state fire marshals are spread out across South Carolina.

“Last year, even being short some deputy state far marshal positions, they still did over 11,000 inspections. Understand that a school inspection – on average – would take a day. An entire working day just because of the size of the facility,” he explained. “Obviously a larger campus that has multiple buildings could take multiple days to do the initial inspection, and then you’ve got to do re-inspections when violations are found, and sometimes those violations require multiple visits. So you can kind of add it up as to how many days one school facility could take a deputy state fire marshal to inspect.”

Jones says developing any type of plan to bring about a solution to this problem is to continue developing relationships with state and local partners.

“In our regulations, it does say we will work with local resident fire marshals to ensure regular inspections of schools,” he said.

Over the summer, Jones says his team plans to start collecting data to improve inspections, whether S. 709 passes in the next legislative session or not. It’ll start prioritizing school inspections based on factors like sprinkler systems, previous violations, building age and the dates of last inspections.

“I think when people understand why these things exist, it’s much more palatable for them to follow and contribute to that safe environment,” Jones said.

While continuing our investigation, News13 requested any new inspection reports from the OSFM through the end of March. We received only one – an inspection for a $21 million renovation project happening now at North Myrtle Beach High School.

An inspector found the following issue: “Prior to starting the renovation there was an operating fire alarm system, however it is not operating at this time.”

“We’ve been testing the fire alarm as we go through a phase of renovation, and on March 30 is when we had sort of a system failure we couldn’t quite figure out,” Mark Wolfe, Horry County Schools Executive Director of Facilities, said. “The fire marshal asked us to check into it and see what we could do to keep it running.”

Wolfe says the system’s age made it difficult. The school had until April 17 to have the system functional.

“We just didn’t feel since we were replacing the system it was wise to spend thousands of dollars to find parts that were just going to be thrown away, so we opted to do a fire watch for the school,” Wolfe explained.

The school district contracted a company to keep tabs on the building 24/7. Wolfe says the company will continue to do so until the new fire alarm system is installed. HCS spokeswoman Teal Britton told News13 per a standard contract, the cost per hour for the fire watch is $19.24. The cost per week for the 24 hour fire watch is $3,232.32, she said.

“If there is a fire, they are the fire alarm, so to speak. They will notify someone or they’ll call or pull an alarm if one’s still functional,” Wolfe explained.

Wolfe says the school’s system still works, but is not completely reliable. The district was planning on replacing the old system as part of the high school’s renovation project. Wolfe says the effort will cost over $620,000.

While the system is expected to get replaced over the summer, Sen. Hembree hopes to make progress on further discussing his newest piece of proposed legislation.

There’s a strategy, Hembree says, behind the bill’s end-of-session introduction. He wants Jones’ team, LLR, SC Department of Education and other stakeholders to take a look at the legislation over the summer. He says every comment, concern and suggestion – he wants to hear before January.

“You jump into committee with it. You can say this is a compromise bill,” the senator explained. “All of the stakeholders considered it. Everybody who cares about it says yes and is in favor of it and it makes it a lot easier for my colleagues on that committee to go, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’”

Hembree says he hopes to see the bill move through committee in 2018 and on to state lawmakers for consideration.