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Years later, schools' fire safety questioned

Some local schools are scrambling to deal with re-interpreted codes.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 16, 2007


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Lithia

 Everything checked out fine when Lithia Springs Elementary was built in 1992. Its annual reviews by the fire marshal's inspectors have shown no red flags or code violations.

So imagine the school's surprise when its inspection last year turned up a significant problem: The second-floor media center and art room are in need of an extra fire exit and stairwell for the pre-K through second grade students.

"It's an issue that nobody saw when the school was built in 1992," Lithia Springs principal MaryAnn Keene said of the school's media center and art room, which were cited for inadequate exits. "But we're going to work through it."

Turns out, it's not the only local school scrambling to make amends for second-floor shortcomings. A new interpretation of a state fire code has at least one school prepared to take legal action if it can't compromise with the fire marshal.

Academy of the Holy Names is proud of its state-of-the-art media center, a $5-million investment on the second floor of the new west wing. Built in 2001, it boasts a huge arched window that overlooks the playground, extensive online database programs and an enormous collection of books and magazines.

Last year, a city fire inspector looked at the private school's media center - five years after it was built - and said it was flawed. The media center has two exits, but the state fire coderequires an additional exit so kindergarten and first-grade kids don't have to compete with older children.

In early October, the Tampa Fire Marshal's Office sent a letter to the academy requesting "a plan of action to mitigate" the code violation within 60 days.

But constructing a new exit could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and would ruin a portion of the center, the school contends. On Oct. 17, it filed an administrative appeal with the city, arguing that the academy followed all of the rules and fire codes when it built the center so it should be allowed to keep the center as is.

Former City Council member Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the academy's board of trustees and has a kindergartener there, said the problem came about when a new inspector came to the school and had a different interpretation of a code pertaining to school fire exits. The city fire marshal checked with the state Fire Marshal's Office, which confirmed that the school does, in fact, need an additional exit

"After six years of doing the right thing, we're now being told we're doing it wrong," Buckhorn said. "Anybody else who has added a library (in recent years) and relied on the city's interpretation of the proper code is sort of caught in a bureaucratic quagmire."

That includes Trinity School for Children in central Tampa and downtown's Rampello School, both cited for having too few exits in the last year, said Hillsborough County School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. (Rampello School was later found to have an adequate number of exits.)

However, the school district is "working it out administratively," Cobbe said. Rather than alter the structure of the schools' buildings, the schools are complying by designating one of the existing exits for the youngest children and making sure the older kids aren't in the buildings at the same time as the younger kids.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

[Last modified November 15, 2007, 07:25:50]


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