Waiting To Inhale

Even where there wasn't smoke, there were fire watchers in the public schools of Orange County, Florida. During the final weeks of the school year, the district put some 30 fire watchers on duty after fire officials found some schools in violation of state safety regulations.
by | July 2003

Even where there wasn't smoke, there were fire watchers in the public schools of Orange County, Florida. During the final weeks of the school year, the district put some 30 fire watchers on duty after fire officials found some schools in violation of state safety regulations.

The watchers, who were trained to identify signs of fire, prowled the hallways wearing orange vests and carrying horns or whistles to warn students and staff in the event they encountered a blaze. "It's mainly just people walking around the building looking for fires, smelling for smoke," says Tammy Wunderly, an Orange County Fire Rescue battalion chief.

After both state and local officials cited fire code violations that included improperly installed windows, blocked exits, open fire doors and improper equipment, the school district faced the prospect of costly and time-consuming repairs. As an alternative to closing the schools, State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher ordered the county to employ the fire watchers in the schools with violations perceived as most dangerous.

While the fire watchers were paid for their efforts, Rick Harris, the senior director for security services and safety for Orange County Public Schools, notes that most of the watchers were already "light duty" school system employees, which kept the cost of the fire-watcher program to a minimum.

Officials there vow that enough repairs will be made so that the watchers won't be needed in the fall. Nina Banister, a spokesperson for Gallagher, says fire watchers are not currently being employed in any other county in Florida, but three years ago watchers were used in Lee County.

As it turned out, much to everyone's relief, the Orange County fire watchers never had to toot their horns.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer | mailbox@governing.com