Over 3,300 structural fires occur each year in American schools. These result in millions of dollars of damage, dozens of injuries, and sometimes even fatalities. A portion of these could have been prevented with updated procedures and proper inspections, which is why Governor Cuomo signed a bill on December 17 that requires Rockland County schools to be inspected by qualified professionals and which makes inspectors accountable for grievous errors.
Defining “Qualified Inspector”
Under the new law, school fire inspectors must be certified or come from the local fire department. While this may seem like a no brainer, fraudulent inspections by unqualified persons have been an unfortunate trend in Rockland County. In the last several years, public officials have found many violations in the safety protocols that schools are supposed to adhere to. Included among the requirements of most fire inspection checklists are the proper placement and quantity of fire extinguishers, that fire exits are visible and illuminated, that fire lanes are of a certain size and distance from the building, and that intercoms and other paging systems are in good working order. Safety violations mean that these qualifications, or other qualifications on the checklist, were assessed by unqualified personnel or outright ignored. As a result, many schools were deemed unsafe for children and faculty, especially those that refused entry to qualified inspectors.
The new bill ensures cooperation from schools that had hitherto been uncooperative with safety officials. Some private Hasidic schools are the chief offenders. Such schools were represented by the School Religious Freedom Coalition, which feuded with county officials, accusing them of anti-Semitism and denying entry to fire inspectors. Eventually the inspectors were let in, but the controversy continued. Now, the power is with the officials, who are able to cease operation of schools that do not fix the problems that are discovered via adequate inspection. As Governor Cuomo says, “The safety of our children is a top priority, and while school fire inspections are sometimes perceived as just another administrative requirement, the truth is that lives can be endangered if they aren’t done right.”
It apears that Rockland County has gotten serious about its desire for fire-safe schools. If the bill works as advertised, school administrators will have to delegate fire inspection responsibilities to qualified professionals. On the plus side, these inspectors will now be responsible for their own mistakes.