The Public Eye

Nobody inspected schools, apartment buildings for fire risk for years in Galt, Elk Grove and Folsom

The headquarters of the Cosumnes Community Services District burned in 2015.
The headquarters of the Cosumnes Community Services District burned in 2015. Cosumnes Fire Department

Many schools, day care centers, senior care homes, businesses and public buildings in Elk Grove, Folsom and Galt have not been inspected for faulty wiring, blocked fire exits and other fire hazards for years.

In the cities of Galt and Elk Grove, the Cosumnes Fire Department failed to perform state-mandated fire-safety inspections at all schools and nearly all public buildings and businesses between 2014 and March 2017. Some haven’t had required inspections since 2012, according to fire Chief Tracey Hansen.

“They all fell to the wayside,” Hansen said. “We are working for compliance on all of these things and are making sure we don’t do that again.”

Fire inspections also dipped dramatically in Folsom starting in 2012, when only six of the city’s 16 schools were inspected, according to Fire Department documents. By 2014 and 2015 only Folsom High School was inspected. Roughly a third of the city’s hotels, residential care facilities and apartments were inspected in 2015 and 2016.

The state requires fire departments to make annual inspections of schools, hospitals, jails, elderly care homes, preschools, day care and children’s homes, among other buildings. Fire inspectors also must inspect buildings or meeting rooms where more than 50 people gather, as well as any research and development facility that use hazardous materials.

“The state sets minimum standards that we all have to comply with, not maximum, not optimum or ideal,” said James McMullen, former California state fire marshal. “The minimum standard is to inspect schools annually.”

Hansen said she was unaware that state-required inspections were not being performed until an inspector brought it to her attention last summer. She initiated a review.

“After the review, I learned that even though we have performed several code-related inspections at various school campuses, we have not performed formal annual inspections of public schools within the previous three years,” she wrote in response to a public records request from The Bee asking for copies of all school inspections since January 2014.

Interim Folsom fire Chief Dan Haverty said he learned of the lack of inspections in his department on Jan. 4 – shortly after he took the job and sat down with the city’s two fire inspectors to talk about fire prevention.

“I saw this,” he said pointing to a list of inspections for 2016 with only a few marked completed. “ ‘OK. We need to start making some corrections here,’ ” he said he told the inspectors. “ ‘Let’s realign our workload and prioritize.’ 

The fire prevention bureau has nearly completed inspecting all of Folsom’s apartment complexes and has begun inspecting its schools. “They are making good progress,” Haverty said.

He said the department focused on inspecting apartment complexes before schools because data shows they are more likely to be at risk for fires. The Fire Department responded to only one call at a school since 2013, an overheated electrical motor causing smoke in an elementary school classroom last month, he said.

“In my 30 years of firefighting, I haven’t gone to a single school fire,” said Haverty. He pointed out that last week’s fire at James Rutter Middle School in Sacramento took place at 1:30 a.m. and appears to have been intentionally set. “A fire safety inspection is not going to stop that,” he said.

‘Lack of funding’

Cosumnes fire department leaders aren’t sure exactly which businesses and public buildings they are supposed to be inspecting. They are compiling a list on a recently purchased computer program that allows fire department staff to assign, schedule and track the status of all inspections, said Morgana Yahnke, the department’s newly hired fire marshal.

“We are making progress,” she said. “We really are. It is a step in the right direction to gather the data. We are communicating with everyone we need to.”

Hansen said the department intends to complete all inspections this calendar year. “We are working diligently and throwing a lot of resources at it to make sure it is done,” she said.

The Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department has 44 public schools within its boundaries, 35 in Elk Grove and nine in Galt, according to Hansen. A search of the Great Schools website shows the district also has three public charter schools, 17 private schools and 41 day care facilities within its boundaries that also require annual inspections.

Cosumnes Fire crews have responded to 40 calls to schools for fires, gas leaks and other hazardous situations since 2014. Eight of those calls were for gas leaks, six for suspicious odors, six for vegetation fires, four were dumpster fires and three were electrical fires.

The balance were primarily fires set in trash cans often in bathrooms or locker rooms, including a string of suspicious fires set at Elk Grove High School in 2014 that resulted in the arrest of a 15-year-old boy.

The Cosumnes Community Services District operates the fire department as well as park and recreation services for Elk Grove. Its historic headquarters burned down in February 2015 after a fire started in the attic. Hansen said the building, which was built in 1920, did not require state-mandated fire safety inspections. But according to state code, meeting rooms with capacity of over 50 – like the one in the headquarters building – would require such an inspection.

The fire department did not provide information requested by The Bee about the cause of the headquarters fire.

Cosumnes fire department is not the only agency that let fire inspections fall behind during the recession, said community services district board President Rod Brewer. “A lot of the jobs have not been done because of a lack of funding,” he said.

A review of inspection reports from the larger Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District also revealed lapses, though not as many. The district does inspect the schools within its boundaries, but it did not inspect each school every year between January 2014 and March 9, 2017 – the period for which records were requested. In a few cases, the district failed to perform inspections at some schools for two consecutive years.

The Sacramento city and Roseville fire departments both completed nearly all of the annual required inspections at schools in their boundaries during the three-year period.

Inspections take back seat

Lompoc fire Chief Kurt Latipow, chairman of the League of California Cities Public Safety Policy Committee, said fire departments don’t always have time to complete all their inspections and generally use a triage method based on risk.

“Depending on how busy the department is, sometimes it’s extremely hard to keep up with the workload,” Latipow said. “Every fire chief takes these responsibilities to heart and we do everything we can to follow the intent of the code.”

Former state fire marshal McMullen said inspections shouldn’t take a back seat. “The last thing you reduce are the mandates you have,” he said. “If you were going to cut that down, you should do so with the full knowledge of the governing entity. You would go to your board and say, ‘Here are our resources and we have to do the inspections, so here are some other things we have to reduce.’ To reduce down to your state mandates, you are violating the law.”

Both Hansen and Haverty said state-mandated safety inspections stopped being a priority after the department lost staffing because of the recession. Folsom lost all three of its part-time fire inspectors in 2012. The city’s fire marshal, who headed up the fire prevention bureau, left a few years later, Haverty said.

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District had the same problems in 2015, said Haverty, who was its interim fire chief at that time. “All the fire departments really tried to maintain their line force during that period of time so that the most immediate missions of the fire department were being answered,” he said. “That is, you pick up the phone and dial 911 and you expect someone to come to the door or the street corner, wherever you are having a problem.”

When asked whether the Folsom City Council was aware state-mandated fire inspections weren’t being completed, he said: “They are now.”

The Cosumnes Community Services District board, which operates the Fire Department, did not learn about the dearth of inspections until it received a California Public Records Act request from a constituent in November, Brewer said.

That’s when Galt resident Chris Smith asked the department for copies of the inspection records for Galt’s three high schools in an attempt to determine why the Galt Joint Union High School District needed a recently passed $36 million bond for school repairs.

“It was a jaw-dropper,” Smith said when he learned there had been no inspections. “I held the Fire Department to a higher expectation.”

Smith, who has nieces and nephews in the Galt schools, shot off letters of complaint to the Galt Joint Union High School District school board, the Sacramento County grand jury and California state fire marshal.

Brewer said the Cosumnes fire department has inspected Galt schools and is scheduling Elk Grove schools for inspection. “Schools throughout Elk Grove are a priority, and Galt,” Brewer said. “We definitely want to focus on those. As long as kids are in there getting the education they need, we want to make sure they are in a safe facility that is up to code.”

Yahnke has been been tasked with getting the district caught up on inspections by the end of the year. “I’ve got my job cut out for me,” she said.

Hansen won’t be around to ensure that goal is achieved. The fire chief retires on June 30 after seven years in that position. Her replacement is Deputy Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin.

Haverty will hand the job of Folsom fire chief and any pending inspections over to Felipe Rodriguez on June 1.

Hansen said she reported her department’s noncompliance with the law to the California state fire marshal as soon as she learned about it and is keeping the agency updated on the department’s progress. But there aren’t likely to be any repercussions for the department’s failure to follow the law.

“The Office of the State Fire Marshal does not regulate or have jurisdiction over local fire agencies’ compliance with the law, so there will be no sanctions issued by the OSFM,” said Wendy Collins, OSFM deputy chief fire marshal, in an email.

The fire marshal’s job is to write regulations, McMullen said. It is the fire chief’s responsibility to comply with the regulations. If they don’t, the governing board should call a meeting and find out why, he said.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert