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Inspector at work
Fire Marshal's Office emerges from controversy

LAWRENCEVILLE - To the naked eye, Archer High School, future home of the Tigers, is about finished. Its vast commons area is tiled, its science classrooms freshly painted, its gym floor ready for squeaky competition.

But to a fire inspector, the sprawling, multi-story structure is far from finished.

During a recent hard-hat tour, a team led by Gwinnett County Fire Marshal's Office inspectors snaked through the 440,000-square-foot Lawrenceville school, their flashlights illuminating hundreds of sprinkler heads and a

veritable nervous system of wiring and data cables. They noted the thickness of fire spray, peeped holes in smoke barriers and paid ceaseless attention to - of all things - caulking.

A future science lab temporarily failed inspection. A gap in caulking was pointed to and filled. On the roof, a ventilation system underwent an almost scientific degree of scrutiny.

"If you'd look at the school, you'd think it's about done," said Inspector Timothy Washburn, the tour's vocal leader. "But it's not."

Chimed Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge, "They're looking for things not only to make the building safe, but also to find ways to fight fires."

The process, taken as a whole, signaled a contrast to that of three years ago. Revelations in early 2006 that two dozen schools had not been inspected in years triggered the resignations of some top brass in the Gwinnett County Fire Department - including the fire chief, fire marshal and two staff members.

Times have apparently changed.

Three weeks after the inspection scandal rocked the department, veteran firefighter Ed Knopick took over the embattled office, beginning an immediate review of inspection processes and a hard-line approach to code enforcement - especially in the case of schools.

Of the 26 employees who comprise the Fire Marshal's Office, four are dedicated solely to inspecting high-risk-occupancy buildings (up from three in 2006), a category that includes schools and day care and personal care facilities.

"Two at-risk groups (make) a significant portion of fire injuries and death," said Knopick, the Fire Marshal, "the very young and the very old."

Gone are the lax years of sporadic inspections. Records show inspectors have checked all 121 facilities in the Gwinnett Public School system this year. Inspections of the county's roughly 60 private schools are expected to be finished in April, Knopick said.

Each facility is held to a stringent checklist of hundreds of provisions, each falling under life safety and international fire code, the Holy Grail of fire-prevention principles, Inspectors Capt. Jeff Yoder said.

Yoder said the local slump in commercial building means inspectors will revisit existing structures more frequently for maintenance inspections. The Fire Marshal's database lists more than 50,000 occupancies or businesses and schools that have passed inspection, scattered across the county.

"It's never even on our radar to check every business in Gwinnett" each year, Yoder said.

Early in his tenure, Knopick created what's called the Community Risk Reduction Partnership to educate business owners, as well as teachers and principals, on the inspection process. It's focus is to teach fire safety and crisis management, and it's a two-way street, Yoder said.

"We're getting to teach (occupants) what they can do, before they can do it," he said. "Principals are our first line of defense."

Back on the tour, Washburn chides a contractor for what appears to be a malfunctioning brace in a hallway ceiling, directly above where students will be spinning locker dials come August. He explains that inspection work on the 10-acre project began before the first shovel was in the ground, and it won't cease for the life of the structure.

"It's a continuing process," Washburn said.