Fire Code Enforcement Roils Some Central Ohio Teachers

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Schoolchildren’s artwork on classroom walls is, by tradition, part of the fabric of the American learning experience. It’s good for self-esteem. But is it safe? In some schools in the Olentangy Local School District just north of Columbus, artwork on the wall has been severely restricted because of local enforcement of the state fire code. Enforcement of a state fire code has upset teachers in a central Ohio school district. At some schools in the Olentangy District fire inspectors limit decorative artwork and paperwork to ten percent of a classroom’s wall surface. As a result, teachers have been forced to take down some of their artwork and decorations that only went up a few weeks ago. But Lt. Sally McCann-Mirise, head of fire prevention at the local Liberty Township Fire Department, says following the Ohio Fire Code’s ten percent rule is necessary.

“We do ask them to take some things down for obvious reasons,” McCann-Mirise says. “Greater chances for injury, loss of life in a fire, large amounts of people in an area, that type of thing.”

The Olentangy school district’s communications director has yet to arrange interviews between WOSU and school staff. The president of a Parent Teacher Organization at one of the schools was unavailable for an interview that had been scheduled in advance. But in the neighboring Westerville School District, third grade teacher Pegi Wallace gave a tour of the artwork in her classroom.

“I usually use blue fadeless paper with blue trim,” Wallace says. “Most of the materials you see in the classroom I purchased because I like my classroom to look a certain way. And I like it to be cheerful, friendly, soothing. And I want it to look pretty so I purchase the things I need to do what I need to do.” Wallace’s room is filled with artwork. But she says she’s never failed a fire inspection because of it.

The Liberty Fire Department uses the Ohio Fire Code as its basic regulation. But it also has adopted the rules and regulations in the International Fire Code which are often more strict. Shane Cartmill, spokesman in the State Fire Marshal’s office, says local departments are allowed to do this.

“The Ohio Fire Code is automatically adopted for all fire departments throughout the state,” Cartmill says. “Now local jurisdictions however can have ordinances and additional things in their own fire code including items from the international code that go above and beyond the Ohio Fire Code so if they want in their jurisdiction to make something more stringent or to go a little bit above what the minimum standards of the Ohio Fire Code are they can do that. And they can adopt the information from the international code.”

Outside one of the Olentangy District’s schools, several teachers declined to speak on tape or give their names, but one said the atmosphere inside has changed. Another said it’s no longer warm and fuzzy. But Liberty Township fire inspector Jack Allen says preventing a tragedy is more important.

“We are a progressive department; we are by nature a reactionary force – the fire service,” Allen says. “And so the weight of all of those lives falls directly on the fire prevention bureau. And I don’t want to be the guy on a witness stand explaining why I did not enforce the code when we had the loss of even one person.”