Fire chief believes proposed law change could impact safety at Alabama schools

Local News

ALABASTER, Ala. (WIAT) — A bill to remove oversight on school construction projects could impact student safety in the future, according to some fire chiefs in the state.

Proponents of HB 220 say the measure will remove a level of bureaucracy and allow districts to complete projects quicker and cheaper, but opponents, including some fire officials, don’t want corners to be cut when it comes to safety.

“It’s some bad legislation, probably with some good intent,” said Alabaster Fire Chief Tim Love.

Love is also the head of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs. The group is joining several other construction organizations in opposing HB 220.

“We are concerned with your large scale issues, say a renovation and we have a fire protection system that fails or we have some sort of building collapse because there is a structural issue,” said Love.

Love said the proposal allows two year schools and community colleges to plan and construct a building without requiring a third party inspection or plans review.

Public K-12 school districts and institutions of higher learning would be able to plan and complete capital projects, repairs, or maintnance issues that are estimated to cost under $500,000.

Previously, the State Department of Finance’s Division of Construction Management had oversight during all aspects of projects, including planning, construction, and inspection.

Love, who previously was head of the city’s building department, knows all the complexities of codes and ordinances.

“Simple things like panic hardware on gates at schools, panic hardware on doors, did we make sure we had a proper area so that kids can exit a school and assemble in an area safe away from the school?” Love said.

Some state construction teams and contractors are also against the measure.

“Why would you take this away and give it to K-12? They’re in the business of education and that is where they need to be. They don’t have the people to staff this,” said Allen Harris, CEO of Bailey Harris Construction.

Harris previously served as chairman of the Association of Builders and Contractors in Alabama. His business has done work on several public school buildings.

According to Harris, the DCM process ensures that fire codes, building codes, structural codes, and others are followed. There are more than 10 codes that must be met in Alabama, Harris said.

“We have a good relationship. They do their job. They’re efficient and when it comes to the safety aspect as well, you just can’t risk anything,” said Harris.

Supporters of the bill believe it will remove red tape for school districts looking to complete projects.

“We also have architects and we have facility managers and we have construction managers that we do contract with, we do partner with, and we do work with,” said Dr. Jason Barnett, Superintendent of Dekalb County Schools.

Barnett said the bill would still require DCM on larger projects that exceed the $500,000 threshold.

The bill also allows districts to continue using DCM during the process.

According to Barnett, there have been past instances where his district schools planned to make repairs, only to learn the process would be delayed after making contact with DCM.

“Those repairs and the approval process and the drawings and all the things that we’ve done have taken months and all that time it created mold issues, it created weak floors, it created really more safety issues than it prevented,” said Barnett.

Barnett believes the bill would allow districts to complete projects in a timely fashion. He also recalled a past scenario when DCM provided cost estimates for a school building.

“A local municipality decided we can build that building. We can build the same building, the same architect rendering, the same everything, ultimately saved us about $790,000,” said Barnett.

When asked if he believed the new bill allowed corners to be cut, Barnett disagreed and said schools will still be required to meet state safety standards.

“It allows us to abide by the fire marshals and the safety codes, as I understand it, but also allows us to be proactive in getting things done so that our buildings are fully functional and operational,” said Barnett.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter from Rainsville, passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives. It also advanced through a Senate committee.

Chief Love believes intentions were good, but isn’t sure lawmakers are aware of all the potential impacts.

“All we want to make sure of is that the building and the children and everything is built as safely as possible and that we’ve done everything we can to ensure the structural stability, all the trades inside that building are properly installed and operating,” said Love.

CBS 42 reached out to Jefferson County Schools for an opinion on the project. Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin responded:

“We are not going to do anything to jeopardize students’ safety. If this bill passes, we still have every intention of working with our local fire departments to ensure our buildings are safe.”

A spokesperson for the Alabama State Department of Education also responded to a CBS 42 request for a statement in response to the bill:

HB220 that passed out of the Senate committee last week specifies that any capital improvement project at a K-12 school “with an estimated cost certified by a licensed architect or licensed engineer to be no more than five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000); any repair or maintenance of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; and any roofing repair or maintenance shall not be subject to approval by the Division of Construction Management within the Department of Finance.”

All other K-12 capital improvement and renovation project plans remain subject to review/approval by the Division of Construction Management. Finally, the bill provides project design oversight transferred to any entity pursuant to this act shall continue to meet all applicable state, local, and federal codes, laws, and regulations. Therefore, oversight for limited K-12 projects would remain with the local district and their licensed design professionals.

Love and the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs encouraged residents to call local state senators to share input.

It’s unclear when HB 220 may come up for a vote, but Love expects it to be soon.

Stay with CBS 42 for updates.

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