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Audit Finds Fire Safety Concerns at Texas School for the Deaf

At the historic Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, strobe lights are supposed to flash in case of fire. But in some places on campus, those visual alarms do not work, according to a state audit report released Tuesday.

The Texas School for the Deaf in Austin.

At the historic Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, strobe lights are supposed to flash in case of fire. But in some places on campus, those visual alarms do not work, according to a state audit report released Tuesday.

The lights were one of several fire safety weaknesses that State Auditor John Keel's staff identified at the 159-year-old school, which has been under state scrutiny in recent years over such concerns. The auditors — who inspected the campus in September and October — also found flaws in the school's sprinkler system safety devices, a lack of emergency exit signs and problems with smoke containment and fire detection. 

The "deficiencies presented varied levels of life safety risks to building occupants," the report said.

Last year, the State Fire Marshal's Office threatened to shut down the school over fire safety problems. To keep it open, the Texas Facilities Commission agreed to patrol parts of the campus 24 hours a day to ensure buildings don't catch fire.

“It is important to note that this system is in addition to our fire alarm system, which in spite of its deficiencies still alerts our security department and the Austin Fire Department," school Superintendent Claire Bugen wrote to Keel's office in response to the audit. 

The school agrees with the report’s findings and is working to fix the problems, Bugen wrote. Before the audit, the school was already working to improve its fire alarm system, she wrote. One round of repairs — including fire alarm replacement and fiber network upgrades — is complete, and a second round will address the deficiencies identified in the audit, she wrote.

In the past few years, the Texas Facilities Commission has found rodent infestations, "catastrophic electrical failures," collapsed sewer lines, deteriorating roofs and "asbestos-laden floor tiles” at the school.

The school has received about $6.9 million in state dollars for repairs since 2004 and has spent about $5.5 million, the audit said.

The $1.4 million discrepancy is a result of a statewide budget reduction. The school sent that money back to the state in the 2010 budget year because it "was simply the least harmful of two unpleasant options; deferring critical maintenance or eliminating staff and as a result, federally mandated student services," Bugen wrote.

The auditors — who were seeking to determine if state dollars were being used appropriately — could not verify whether the school completed certain repairs during the 2004-2011 budget years because the facility had destroyed related documents in accordance with its record retention policy, the state report said.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office inspections led to auditors' decision to look into the issue further, the report said. Auditors did walk-throughs to examine 21 of the school's 35 fire alarm system control panels, including the buildings being patrolled. Seventeen of the 21 had deficiencies, though none made a building’s entire system unusable, the report said.

Keel, who has served as state auditor for more than a decade, announced this week he will retire Jan. 4.

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