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Half of city school buildings are overdue for fire inspections

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Colfax Elementary is one of two dozen school buildings overdue for a fire safety inspection this year.

More than two dozen buildings in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system — roughly half its building stock — are overdue for fire inspections this year. And while school officials note that there is no imminent danger to students, the problem reflects the administration’s ongoing struggles with staffing shortfalls amid the COVID crisis.

“We got off cycle with our yearly required fire inspections due to COVID and different issues,” said the district’s director of facilities, Stephen Connell. The district contracts with an outside vendor to conduct the inspections, and Connell said the contract “should have gone out in December and it ended up going out in June.”

Connell and interim chief operations officer Michael McNamara stressed that the inspections were getting underway and should be completed by the end of the year. In the meantime, they said fire alarm tests and other routine checks were continuing, with no sign of serious problems.

“We have excellent buildings and we have an excellent staff that takes care of them,” said Connell. He said the average age of the district’s 54 school buildings was over 85 years old, but, “I believe the district does a very good job of keeping these buildings maintained, keeping them safe.”

But Sarah Kinter, the head of the city of Pittsburgh’s Department of Permitting, Licensing, and Inspections, said the inspections are “an important aspect of building safety, so we should all have our eye on it.”

The goal of the inspections is to insure that the systems have not deteriorated and are still in working order: An inspection may well reveal other issues that would need to be remedied, and the city focuses on high-occupancy structures where the stakes are highest.

“If there were a failure, that could be catastrophic” in a school or other high-occupancy building, said Kinter. “We want to make sure that those are being annually inspected. As things degrade over time, [a failure to inspect] is really problematic.”

The schools affected range across the city and include buildings that serve students at each grade level. In most cases, the only problem for which the district has been cited is a failure to conduct inspections of various aspects of the fire-safety system, including the fire alarm and sprinkler systems, as well as generators that power the system and the standpipe that supplies water to it.

But the city has flagged a handful of other issues, including an un-inspected electrical system at Morrow's primary campus and fire hoses that were missing from cabinets among other issues at Oliver Citywide Academy.

Oliver is a special-education center for students from grades 3 through 12, and includes some students with behavioral and emotional issues.

“It's a difficult population,” Connell said. And according to his maintenance chief, “The kids like to run down the hall with the fire hoses.” The hoses and cabinets are being replaced, he said, “And hopefully it won’t happen again.”

(Another concern involves a deteriorating roof at the former Mann Elementary school, which is no longer used and which the district sold in July, after the city raised concerns about it.)

The city flagged the overdue inspections in July and August. In some cases, including Morrow's intermediate-level campus and Minadeo Elementary, the city has issued a criminal complaint against the district, thought Kinter says “we do our best to work with folks … and if they’re making a good-faith effort, we work with the courts and with the defendants.”

District leaders said belated inspections stem from two problems: the impact of the coronavirus on school districts across the nation and the globe, and staffing shortages that have plagued the administration. Among the nine top staff positions focused on the district’s physical plant, two are vacant and a third, mechanical systems manager, was just filled on a temporary basis after being vacant for nearly two years.

“It does add a burden,” said McNamara, who noted that similar shortages were “an industry-wide thing.” “And we are actively engaging in recruiting. … We just haven't had very good luck.”

And COVID multiplied those burdens. While the district’s buildings were empty of students last year, staff were taking advantage of the chance to focus on overdue capital projects while trying to prepare for the return of in-person learning. McNamara called it a “massive undertaking” — even as the district tried to provide remote instruction and offer services like food distribution.

COVID required “a large effort that was outside of our normal course of operations,” said Connell.

James Fogarty, who heads education advocacy group A+ Schools, said he wasn’t surprised to hear of the district’s problems, but said they were troubling.

“I think it speaks to the need for stability and support within the district,” he said. And he worried that the imminent departure of Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, who will leave after this week, will also be disruptive

“To be fair to them, the pandemic has impacted everyone. My ability to manage operational things has been impacted too,” he said. But “When you have turnover in central administration like they’ve had, it increases the likelihood of some of these problems happening. It’s the kind of ball that gets dropped: The custodians may be there, all the day-to-day stuff may be happening, but when someone has to do a contract with an outsider, that’s where balls get dropped.”

Correction: This story was updated at 1:07 p.m. on September 28, 2021 to reflect the fact that the former Mann Elementary School building was sold by the district in July.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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