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A Hummel Report Investigation

Chained In

The Station Nightclub Fire left many Rhode Islanders acutely aware of entrance and exit doors. This week: we have undercover video of a chained fire exit at a charter school in Cranston - with students just steps away down the hall. The state fire marshal was so disturbed when Jim Hummel showed him the video, he and the state police reacted immediately.

SCRIPT

Hummel: ``The Station Nightclub fire made many of us acutely aware of the entrances and exits of the buildings we go into. This week, undercover video of a chained fire exit at this Cranston charter school that state fire marshal reacting immediately when he saw the video.''

It is just after 7 a.m. and students are starting to arrive for school. At the New England Laborer's Construction Career Academy off Pontiac Avenue. The charter school was created 10 years ago and rents space in this converted jewelry manufacturing building.

It's what's inside, though, that attracted the attention of a state trooper and inspector from the state Fire Marshal's office early Monday morning. On the backside of the school, down a hallway from where kids have begun to gather, and just beyond an exit sign is a set of double doors......chained shut.

We showed this video - and still pictures - to state Fire Marshal Jack Chartier.

Chartier: ``I was extremely upset when I saw that. Anytime that you see a posted fire exit in a school, particularly, but any fire exit, deliberately blocked - that's an action somebody has taken, that's in direct violation not only of the fire code, but of common sense.''

Sources inside the school - which has about 160 students - say the doors have been chained overnight and the first part of the day since the beginning of the academic year, in part to keep late-arriving students from sneaking in the back door. We've also learned that some students questioned the janitors about the chains.

Dennis Curran,  a veteran administrator from Connecticut, became the executive director of the school in August.

Hummel: ``Some of  the kids had told the janitors, `You know this is illegal,' and the response from the janitors is, `We know but we're just following order.' Is that true, were they following orders to have that door chained?''

Curran: ``I don't know anything about that discussion, I think a staff member had suggested that door be secured at night and I think that we could have been a little more timely getting that door open in the morning.''

Chartier: ``It disturbs me that a trained leader in education would make this decision. Exit doors in educational occupancies, this has been in the code for decades. This is not something new. So this isn't something that came in post- Station Fire and people are having to react to it. It has always been that the exits in schools - you cannot chain them shut when the building is occupied.''

In an interview on Tuesday Curran defended having chains on the doors, but not the timing of having  them removed every day.

Curran: ``I think that where they dropped to the ball here was, there were some times when students were coming in before homeroom, that door should have been unlocked and unsecured at that point in time. And I think that's the concern is that once we opened up and students were in the building that door should have been unlocked.''

But they haven't been - repeatedly. Curran says problems with the doors shutting properly  - and not disciplinary issues - led to the chains being used.

Curran: ``Lately we've had it repaired three times, but it continued to be a door that was very loose and quite frankly, you could pop open with very little strength.''

Marshal Chartier says that's not what his inspector found Monday morning.

Chartier: ``He stepped outside and asked them to lock the doors. Which they did. He then tried the doors to get in and he could not. They locked effectively and he was out on the platform and could not get back into the building.''

Inspector Paul Manning found not only the illegal chains, but defective emergency lighting inside the building as well. Curran, as head of the school, was cited for two criminal violations of the state fire code, and fined $500. It's unclear who will pay that fine.

Chartier: ``When you got to the trouble of posting a sign on a door that that's going to be your policy, it's not a quick fix, it's that you've made a conscious decision and it's going to be a while before we fix this door, if in fact the door was broken, and we're going to make it a policy of the building so much so that we post a sign on the door that the chains will stay on until 7:45 in the morning.''

The Hummel Report has learned the chains sometimes didn't come off until after 7:45.

Chartier, the former fire chief in Warwick was one of the three commanding chiefs at the Station Nightclub fire nine years ago. He says the Cranston situation this week should be a warning to all administrators.

Chartier: ``Proper exits and egress is fundamental to fire safety. So when I see something like this in a school it drives me crazy.''

Hummel: ``But I'm just wondering how it is that somebody could look at that door as a chained door when kids are in this school and think that that's okay. I just don't understand that.''

Curran: ``Sure. And again my best response is that the intent was to have that door unsecured each day as we open up.''

Curran assures us the doors are on the fast track to being replaced....and the chains put away permanently.

In Cranston,  Jim Hummel for the Hummel Report.

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