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NYS Comptroller

THOMAS P. DiNAPOLI

Taxpayers' Guide to State and Local Audits

State Education Department
Oversight of School Fire Safety Compliance


Issued: August 24, 2016
Link to full audit report 2015-S-86
Link to 90-day response

Purpose
To determine if the State Education Department (Department) is providing effective oversight to ensure school compliance with required fire safety procedures including inspections, reporting, and monitoring. Our audit did not include a review of compliance issues for schools operating within New York City. The audit covered the period January 1, 2013 through May 18, 2016.

Background
The Department is responsible for overseeing school fire safety and for ensuring schools comply with fire safety provisions established in State Education Law, the State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code, and Department regulations. These include requirements for mandatory building and fire inspections, fire drills, and other fire safety activities. Each public, private, charter, and Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) school building must be inspected annually by qualified fire inspectors and the results filed with the Department. The Department also issues a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) annually to each BOCES, public, and charter school. State Education Law mandates that if an inspection identifies violations that are severe enough, the Department will not issue the CO until the violations have been corrected and a re-inspection has been done. As of November 2015, there were approximately 2,900 public schools, 50 charter schools, 40 BOCES, and 1,100 private schools operating in the State (excluding New York City).

Key Findings

  • We found the Department does not adequately monitor whether schools are in compliance with all fire safety regulations and accurately report all violations. Our visits to 25 schools found many did not complete the required number of fire drills, and emergency evacuation plans at six schools did not include procedures to address evacuation of students who have disabilities or special needs. Additionally, we observed several violations and deficiencies, including: electrical hazards such as overloaded power strips and extension cords; missing or outdated fire extinguishers; partially obstructed means of egress; and violations cited in prior inspections that had not been corrected.
  • Almost 50 percent of private schools did not submit required inspection reports for the 2015-16 school year. Even so, the Department does not follow up to prompt compliance and, as a result, has little assurance that all these schools were actually inspected.
  • In 2015, the Department implemented a new electronic system that allows schools to selfreport inspection data, but has taken no steps to verify the accuracy of information provided by schools. Further, officials did not implement tools or commands to enable staff to analyze the data or produce reports to monitor school compliance. For example, the Unit cannot easily determine how many, or which, schools’ inspection reports are outstanding at any given point in time.

Key Recommendations

  • Develop a risk-based approach for verifying, by site visit or other means, whether information provided in fire inspection reports is accurate and schools are complying with fire safety requirements.
  • Develop and implement actions to follow up with non-compliant private schools to encourage and improve their submission of annual fire safety inspection reports.
  • Develop, in conjunction with information technology staff, the capabilities and data reliability of the new fire inspection data system, so that it can be used to easily access, analyze, and generate management reports on relevant inspection information for all schools.

Other Related Audits/Reports of Interest

None


State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: John Buyce
Phone: (518) 474-3271; Email: StateGovernmentAccountability@osc.state.ny.us
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236