DeKalb County's fire chief says he will make major changes within his fire marshal's office after a Channel 2 Action News investigation exposed major fire safety violations that left some schoolchildren in danger for years.
Fleischer got a tip from a whistleblower who said DeKalb County was failing to inspect some private schools and preschools located within religious institutions for years.
Records show when an inspector finally did note some of the fire code violations, his boss, DeKalb County Fire Marshal Antonio Burden, told him not to follow up, and then reassigned him.
"That's just very surprising and upsetting," said parent Amy Woolf, after hearing what Channel 2 uncovered.
Schools and daycares are required to have a separate certificate of occupancy, and are inspected with more scrutiny than a regular church building.
Seven schools and preschools Fleischer inquired about were all operating off-the-books without the required certificates of occupancy for a school or day care.
Today on Channel 2 Action News at 5, Fleisher demands answers from the fire marshal and looks into what’s being done to keep students at these schools safe.
"Well, there's missing documentation in all cases," Fullum said. "When we walk in the door, if we see that there's children there, we're going to inspect it as though it's a school."
But records show an inspector in 2013 noted serious violations like a fire alarm system that wasn't working, missing exit signs, and emergency lights out. He said the fixes should be “immediate” and “prohibited occupancy before approval.”
Then, he never went back.
After filing numerous open records request, Fleischer located an email in which an inspector asked Burden for guidance on the issue, and Burden told him not to return.
"I told them to hold off returning to these locations to close them down," clarified Burden.
Fleischer replied that the email was dated a year ago and asked Burden what he had done since.
Burden replied, "We're going to take our time and formulate a plan, a strategic plan, and then we're going to move forward."
While the fire marshal was formulating his plan, Fleischer showed what she found to Chief Fullum, who has only been in office for two months.
Three of the schools Fleischer looked at, Berean Christian Academy, Oak Grove Young Children's Center and the School at North Decatur United Methodist Church, weren't inspected in 2013, North Decatur UMC was also skipped in 2012.
"We're going to do a comprehensive review of it and there's a lot of changes we need to make. We've discovered a lot of gaps we need to take care of," said Fullum.
He ordered an inspector to visit and re-inspect each location immediately.
At the Annunciation Day School located inside the Greek Orthodox Church on Clairmont Road, the fire alarm was noted as “not working and not serviceable.”
"It's very serious," said Fullum, "That is one of those items we consider a first defense against a fire."
Records show the alarm was cited during a 2011 inspection as well.
"We're moving quickly to address it, and I would tell the parents those children are absolutely safe," said Nick Demos, who serves as council president for the church.
The county required the school to institute a fire watch, where employees remain on alert and log their surroundings several times a day.
Demos says the school immediately budgeted for a new fire alarm system and is waiting on county approval to install it. Several minor violations were fixed immediately.
"Whenever they come out, we are of course welcoming them at all times and just adhere to what they have to say to us," said Demos, acknowledging that when the inspectors don't come, the school wouldn't know what to fix.
In 2012, the county denied Berean Christian Academy's certificate of occupancy for its school after it failed a fire inspection and plans reviews. The school continued to operate and was not re-inspected until Fleischer's investigation. Inspectors found the school has now relocated inside another church building to become compliant.
Since the re-inspections, Oak Grove UMC, North Decatur UMC, Preschool at the Heights, Clairmont Presbyterian Church Preschool and Beth Jacob Preschool have all fixed their noted violations, and have begun the process of obtaining a certificate of occupancy for their schools or preschools.
Fleischer asked Fullum if he believes there are still schools operating within DeKalb County without certificates of occupancy and the proper inspections.
"We'll find out." Fullum replied.
Parents just hope nothing happens in the meantime.
"I hope it's not at my children's school. But if it was, I would definitely have a talk with the administration and reconsider sending my children there," said Woolf.
Fullum says parents should be mindful when they pick a private school to look around when touring the location and ask to see the latest inspection reports.
He has also launched an internal investigation to examine the fire marshal's operations, including the inspection processes, follow-ups, record keeping and management of the office.