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Fire safety in schools neglected

LAWRENCEVILLE - Thirty local schools went years without fire inspections in a scandal that has dismantled the Gwinnett County Fire Department.

But officials say all the schools have been checked and they do not believe students were in danger.

According to a department investigation, 12 local schools went five years without fire inspections and another 17 hadn't been inspected since 2003.

During a press briefing Thursday, official said 23 Gwinnett County schools had missed annual inspections. But a list released later that day contained 24 of the county system's schools, plus one Buford City School and five private schools.

Officials said the mismanagement led to the forced resignation of county Fire Chief Jack McElfish a week ago. This week, the county fire marshal and an inspector stepped down.

Since the situation was discovered last month, inspectors have checked all the schools in question and all have been found to be in compliance.

"No one was ever at risk," acting Fire Chief Steve Rolader said. "Every school is safe and was the entire time."

Officials have not yet completed the investigation into the office and say they do not know if other buildings were neglected by the fire marshal's office during the past five years.

"We didn't live up to our commitment," Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said.

Gwinnett County Public Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said she is confident the Fire Department has addressed the concern.

"Despite the process issues regarding the Gwinnett County's fire inspections, safety in Gwinnett schools has not been compromised," Roach said.

In addition to the county inspections, the school system has its own measures to ensure its facilities are safe for students and staff. These include holding fire drills, service to fire extinguishers and regularly scheduled preventative maintenance of fire alarms and sprinkler systems, Roach said.

In addition to the 24 schools in the Gwinnett district, inspections were absent in one Buford City School - Buford Middle School - and five private schools - Covenant Christian Academy, Greater Atlanta Christian School, Providence Christian Academy, St. John Neumann School and Wesleyan School. Inspections for 83 other schools were up-to-date.

"It's hard for me to believe," County Chairman Charles Bannister said. "I'm pleased we found it before anything happened. ... We're thankful, but we're on top of it now."

Chain of command

A state law requires that any county with a population greater than 100,000 inspect schools, day cares, churches, entertainment venues and myriad other buildings.

The law does not specify how often inspections have to occur.

But the county has a "verbal policy" to inspect the schools annually, Comer and Rolader said.

But the lack of supervision, poor record keeping and list of excuses was troubling to Comer.

"I think it was inattention to detail," he said. "It was human failure. I don't think there's a systemic problem. We had a management problem."

On Wednesday, Fire Marshal Tim Eckenwiler resigned and senior inspector Bruce Caldwell retired. Comer said the captain who supervised Caldwell is on administrative leave, and a decision on his employment will be made within the next several days.

If that captain were to step down or be removed, it would mean the entire chain of command up to the fire chief will be out of a job within the year.

David Wiley, the assistant chief in charge of safety and education who oversees the marshals office, submitted his retirement before the issues came to light. He will retire in December.

In the meantime, Wiley is moving from the fire headquarters building to the marshal's office, which is in One Justice Square, a one-stop shop for developers seeking building permits and inspections. His other duties, which include training for firefighters, will be transferred to the assistant chief in charge of operations - Rolader.

Two firefighters who have experience in the marshal's office have been assigned jobs there to help with the department's workload.

Rolader and Comer said straightening out the office is a top priority.

"We have concerns about the management of this operation," Comer said.

Officials claim

mismanagement

The situation came to light after a television reporter submitted an open records request seeking all of the schools' inspection reports.

When officials had a hard time finding the records, someone said all of the inspections may not have been done, Rolader said.

At that point, the inspectors quickly worked to carry out inspections while officials began investigating what went wrong.

Comer said the fire marshal also ignored the open records request, which is contrary to the Georgia Open Records Law and the county government's stated goal to be accessible to the public.

While Comer said other issues were involved with McElfish's resignation, his handling of the investigation and the length it took were key factors in the decision.

A day after he was named acting chief, Rolader was informed of the situation and a week later the employees stepped down.

"I'm pleased Steve was able to get in there quickly and wrap it up," Comer said.

Eckenwiler, who made a salary of $79,188, was named fire marshal in February 2001. He had been with the department for 10 years and had a total of 30 years experience working in a fire department, including service in Florida.

Caldwell, the senior inspector, was a member of the Gwinnett County Fire Department for 28 years. He made a salary of $57,654.

Questions remain

The 24-person fire marshal staff worked in three departments: plan review, new construction and maintenance. It was in the maintenance section that the errors were found.

Comer said the staff uses an electronic tablet to enter in inspection reports and files are kept both electronically and on paper.

When the issue first came up, one excuse was that the filing system had failed, but Comer said information technology staffers found no fault with the system.

"There were all kinds of things being said, but there were people in that section whose records and reports were flawless," Rolader said.

Work assignments are based on geography, Rolader said, and the county does work in some cities, although the state has jurisdiction over hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and state buildings, such as the county's Gwinnett University Center.

A calendar should have been followed to make sure the schools were inspected, he said.

When asked why the oversight wasn't detected for five years, Rolader said, "I think that's a legitimate question," but officials have not yet come up with an answer.

"It won't happen again," he said.