Any Carroll school that hasn't been inspected by the state fire marshal in the past two years will be checked this year, despite a backlog of similar inspections across Maryland, said Bob Thomas, deputy chief state fire marshal.

School board members expressed concern at arecent meeting about the fire marshal's failure to inspect some schools and directed a staff member to contact the state fire marshal's office about the matter.

Nine of the county's 30 schools were inspected during the past two years, Thomas said. Some schools have not been inspected for three years, he said, adding that the situation is the same in Harford and Dorchester counties.

Neither the school officials nor the state fire marshal's office say there are life-threatening hazards in any facilities. School safety committees, composed of administrators, staff,parents and local firefighters, regularly inspect schools.

But board members said they want to see state inspections on a more routinebasis.

"I don't think any of our schools are unsafe," said Board President John D. Myers Jr. "I understand the restraints they're working under, but I would like to see a professional give his or her opinion on a more regular basis."

Thomas said there is no state requirement that schools be inspected each year. He said his office tries to inspect schools every 18 months.

The state fire marshal's office has amassed a backlog because of staff shortages, budget constraints and a priority on the inspection of private and public day-care centers. Day care centers have been given priority because of the numbers of children involved and their ages.

"We want to ensure that those properties are as safe as possible," Thomas said. "Sometimes we gotwo or three years before we get into (public) schools simply because of the workload and priorities assigned to our personnel."

He said he didn't foresee any improvements to the situation in the near future.

Delegate Richard C. Matthews, R-Carroll, said the state should put a higher priority on inspections that involve the health and safety of people.

"Schools and day care should be inspected more often than not, especially during times of fast growth," he said. "I think the state should readjust its priorities to take care of these things."

In addition to day care centers and schools, the fire marshal is responsible for the inspection of all public buildings, some 40,000 to 50,000 properties. The office also investigates fires and explosions, collects fire data, and coordinates fire education programs statewide.

"The fact is, we're not getting to nearly one-half of the buildings because we don't have the manpower or the time," Thomas said. "That's just a reality of the way things are."

However, the fire marshal's office will inspect a building promptly if a complaintis forwarded about an unsafe situation. He said complaints are followed up and corrective measures are taken immediately.

During unannounced inspections, fire officials make sure exits are not obstructed, passageways are clear, exits are clearly marked, exit signs and lights are working, fire extinguishers have been serviced and are functioning, and emergency lighting systems are operable.

He said it is common to find some fire code violations, such as a burned-out exit light or a blocked doorway.

"That's almost a 100 percent certainty," he said. "When you walk into a building, something is always going to be wrong."

During inspections at Carrolltowne Elementary Schoolearlier this year, the state fire marshal noted that exit lights needed to be repaired, a smoke detector secured and a lock replaced. Corrective measures were taken by the maintenance staff.

The inspector noted that exit doors should never be chained or padlocked while the school is occupied. No such violations were observed.

Other schools inspected during the past year included Robert Moton, Mount Airy,Hampstead and the new Piney Ridge and Spring Garden elementary schools.

Lester Surber, Carroll's supervisor of school facilities and planning, said safety committees have been active at each school and have been instrumental in finding and correcting hazards.

During its inspection of Carrolltowne Elementary, for example, the school safety committee found playground equipment, a fence and gates in need ofrepair. Requests were sent to maintenance to correct the problems.

In addition, Surber noted, school officials work closely with the state fire marshal's office during the opening of new schools, such asPiney Ridge and Spring Garden, to make sure they are hazard-free.

"There haven't been any problems," he said.

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