ST. PETERSBURG — Just before dawn recently, Doug Abbott and Richard Pashkow began a three-hour stem-to-stern inspection of Lakewood Elementary School.
Working in sync, the duo checked under rugs for electrical cords without safety covers, tested exit lights and combed classrooms for unauthorized furniture.
"There are videos on YouTube to show you how quickly a couch can ignite," said Joe Palazzola, the fire marshal for the Pinellas County School District. "That padding that makes it comfortable, they call it solid gasoline."
Plug-in air fresheners can also be hazardous, Abbott said as he searched for the source of a flowery scent.
Abbott works for Pinellas County schools; Pashkow for St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. Inspectors for both entities check out St. Petersburg's schools. This year, the state stopped requiring fire officials to inspect public schools, but some jurisdictions, like St. Petersburg, have continued to do them.
"It's another set of eyes looking for any possible safety violations at the time of inspection. So we know what's going on at those schools, so if we respond out there, we have a history of it," said Lt. Joel Granata, deputy fire marshal and public information officer.
Fire officials from other Pinellas cities also are still conducting the inspections except for Pinellas Park, Palazzola said.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue still has nine inspectors checking schools out, but Tampa Fire Rescue has discontinued inspections of about 92 schools in its jurisdiction, spokesman Capt. Lonnie Benniefield said. The department still performs what he refers to as prefire plans — checking the layout, hydrants and so forth — and inspects charter and private schools.
"This is not a situation where they're getting less. It's just us trying to be more efficient with what we've got,'' he said. "Even at the state level, they recognized that this is something that could be a benefit."
Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored the new legislation, said it was meant to eliminate duplication, cut costs and "get the responsibility back to the local communities."
It also raises and standardizes certification requirements for fire inspectors across the state.
The state fire marshal can step in if school boards don't maintain a safe environment, Weinstein said. Further, school fire inspectors risk losing state certification if violations are not corrected.
"You always have a chance of somebody not doing a good job, but I'd rather have the accountability locally than far away,'' the lawmaker said.
Copies of schools' inspection reports have to be submitted to the state fire marshal's online reporting system and to local fire officials.
In St Petersburg, Abbott and Pashkow also inspected Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary.
As part of a reading project, fifth-graders made shoebox dioramas of the stories they'd read. Their creations were put on show in a hallway — until the inspectors showed up.
It was a fire hazard, they said, as were furniture and blankets brought in by teachers as well as excessive paper on classroom walls.
"We're not trying to be arbitrary," Palazzola, the schools' fire marshal, said. "We're trying to be safe.''
He understands that teachers want to motivate their students, he said, "but they're now introducing things into that classroom that are hazardous."
Like making crepes. Fire inspectors once walked in on a well-intentioned cooking session during French class at another school.
Bay Vista Fundamental principal Kris Sulte said fire safety concerns have been corrected. The unauthorized furniture is gone, and the paper has been reduced to the state-mandated 20 percent per wall.
"It's a balance between making a room enjoyable, where kids want to come and learn, vs. not having anything that's not fire retardant,'' she said. "It's a fine line."
Pasco County Fire Rescue is among those agencies that chose to forgo school inspections after July 1. "With recent budget cuts and constraints, we have to make better use of the limited resources we have and aim it to other directions," said fire Chief Donald Campbell.
Cities like New Port Richey, Zephyrhills and Dade City, though, still inspect public schools in their jurisdictions, said John Petrashek, director of construction services and code compliance for Pasco County schools.
"The advantage is, absolutely, two people are better than one … What we have to do now is just slow down. We know that we have to be every bit as thorough as when there were two people.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.
BY THE NUMBERS
7Fire inspectors on staff at Pinellas County schools (they have other job duties)
145Pinellas County public schools inspected
47St. Petersburg public schools (includes charter schools, adult education and vo-tech centers)
Possible fire hazards in schools
•Plug-in air fresheners
•Coffeepots in student areas
•Extension cords without built-in fuse strips
•More than 20 percent paper on a classroom wall
• Ceiling decorations
Source: Pinellas County public schools