Fire code issues: Officials say Shelton High is safe

Shelton High School is a safe building, according to Mayor Mark Lauretti and School Supt. Freeman Burr, despite the recent release of July 2012 report by the State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFM) that found 579 fire code violations.

Lauretti said some of the problems cited in the report — based on 2011 inspections — have since been rectified, and more will be fixed in the future.

“Do I think the school is unsafe?” Lauretti said this week. “Absolutely not. I was there today.”

Lauretti pointed out his sister and sister-in-law teach at the school, and his four children attended school in the facility.

Burr said while he wouldn’t describe the items cited as insignificant, many involve “small stuff” such as gaps in walls that should be covered up.

Some items have already been addressed, Burr said, particularly those having to do with windowless classrooms. “I don’t believe the building is unsafe,” Burr said.

He said he’s mystified why the report wasn’t released until almost two years after the inspections, which were conducted from May 27 to July 25, 2011. The report was released April 11.

Corrective action plan

Jeffrey R. Beckham, staff counsel and communications director for the state Department of Administrative Services, which oversees the SFM, agreed that some violations in the report no longer exist.

“Some of the violations that represented an immediate life safety issue were resolved,” Beckham said. “The remaining issues have to be resolved by the town and its school district. We expect that they would be coming up with a corrective action plan.”

Why released now?

According to a cover letter with the 118-page report that was addressed to attorney Ramon S. Sous, counsel for the city, the report is being released now because no criminal prosecution will be pursued by the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

The investigation into the matter was initiated based on complaints concerning the actions of Shelton Fire Marshal James Tortora. The probe sought “to determine the level of compliance with the fire safety regulations administered by the Office of State Fire Marshal,” according to the letter written by state Fire and Life Safety Supervisor Terry A. Brouwer of SFM.

Brouwer wrote that many of the violations cited “appear to be a result of incomplete or deficient work” performed during the 2006 addition and renovation project at the high school.

“The responsibility for ensuring code compliance at Shelton High School remains with the [SFM],” Brouwer wrote. “Our office, however, remains available to assist in the development of a plan of correction.”

The problems

Shelton High is a four-story, 312,740 square-foot-building that opened in 1974. The 2006 project involved a 7,470-square-foot addition and renovating parts of the existing structure.

According to the report, 64 violations were on the first floor, 151 on the second floor, 168 on the third floor, and 196 on the fourth floor.

Some of the violations cited involve the doors, wall barriers, emergency and exit lighting, signage, windows, clearances, and spacing between items.

Common problems were unprotected wall penetrations, holes in doors from removed hardware, painted-over UL listing labels, electrical boxes without plates or covers, use of extension cords, and the lack of at least one window in certain classrooms.

State involvement

Beckham said the SFM only gets involved when requested by local officials and “when the local enforcement becomes an issue. That occurs infrequently, perhaps once every year or two.”

The SFM could pursue trying to remove Tortora’s certification as a fire marshal. This would involve an administrative proceeding at the state level. “That matter is still under review,” Beckham said.

Lauretti said he has “no issues” with Tortora right now, and has been discussing the problems with him for three years.

“This is not just about the fire marshal, but the people in charge of the building,” the mayor said. “This is not a one-way street."

Design flaws

Burr said it appears that some design issues with the 2006 project may need to be fixed and, based on the SFM letter,  this may require the services of architects and engineers.

Burr was not working in the Shelton school district when the 2006 project was completed.

He expects city and school officials will get together to decide how to proceed. “I’m not certain what we have to do,” he said. “We’d like guidance from the SFM on how to fix it up.”

Finding some violations not unusual

Burr said fire code inspections are conducted regularly of school buildings by local fire officials, including the marshal and deputies, and always include some violations.

Lauretti said the city needs to look at the report in depth and figure out exactly what problems have been fixed and which ones have not. “A lot of these issues have been around a long time,” he said.

Fixing the problems will cost money, according to Lauretti. “We’ve spent quite a bit already, and we’ll spend more,” he said.