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School District faulted for fire watch expense

The Clark County School District spent nearly $500,000 last year on guards to stand fire watch, an expense that has drawn criticism as education funding dwindles in tough economic times.

District officials say that they are following the fire code and that the expense keeps classrooms and buildings safe for occupancy.

“What is the price if something happens?” said district spokesman Michael Rodriguez.

District officials say fire watchers are nothing new. They’ve been used in the district for 20 years. They are necessary whenever construction or renovations put a school building out of compliance with the fire code.

That most often occurs when a portable classroom is installed on a campus. A fire watcher is necessary until the portable unit is wired to the main building’s alarm system and passes a fire inspection. A fire watcher is usually needed for about five weeks.

“It’s like having a manual alarm system,” said Karl Lee, a logistics officer for the Clark County Fire Department.

School officials say they might not need as many fire watchers in the future because of a recent change in the fire code that allows the district to install individual fire alarms in portable classrooms.

The demand for fire watchers is constantly changing as construction projects are completed and new projects are launched.

“The reality is that we’re a growing school district,” Rodriguez said.

The district employs fire watchers at nine schools: Canyon Springs High School and the elementary schools of David Cox, Goynes, Gragson, Long, May, Ronnow, Whitney and Woolley.

The district was put on the hot seat after KTNV-TV, Channel 13 recently reported on district fire watchers.

The district contracts with a private security fire firm called Pro Tech, which declined to comment. Its fire watchers are paid $15.76 an hour. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the school district paid $496,818 to Pro Tech. Between July 1 and Dec. 31 of 2008, the school district paid $155,581.

Lee said fire watchers are required to have a level of professional certification and training. Volunteers could not take their place, he said.

The district pays for fire watchers with funds dedicated to capital projects, Rodriguez said. It does not use money from the general operating fund, which pays for education-related expenses such as teachers’ salaries.

While fire watchers have been criticized for doing little, fire and district officials say they do follow a professional protocol while on the job, such as going through a safety checklist. They report to work a half hour before the school day starts and remain for 30 minutes after the school day ends.

Bad things have happened in the absence of fire watchers. An electrical malfunction was blamed for a pre-dawn fire that destroyed a portable classroom at Kim Elementary School, 7600 Peace Way, near Tropicana Avenue and Buffalo Drive, in July 1995. No one was injured.

In 1993, three juveniles were charged with arson for attempting to set a portable classroom on fire at Henderson’s Taylor Elementary School. No one was injured.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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