LAGUNA NIGUEL : Fire Officials Deem School Staircase ,safe

A fire safety inspector has determined that a 69-step staircase at the Niguel Hills Junior High School annex meets fire code requirements, despite protests from parents who claim it is too steep.

Fire officials said, however, that their inspection was the first time they learned that a hilltop annex of portable classrooms had been added to the school. The annex has housed 100 sixth-graders for the past year.

Lynne Muschinski, safety specialist for the Orange County Fire Department, said the staircase meets state requirements. But she said she feared the portable classrooms, hidden from view from the main campus, might be overlooked by firefighters during an emergency.

"My concern was that there was a problem with the portables. Are the firemen even aware they're up there?" Muschinski asked.

Because the staircase and portables were installed last September, they were not included in the yearly fire inspection in August, 1989.

School district officials are not required to notify the Fire Department about the installation of portable classrooms.

"There's no reason the Fire Department couldn't have come down and checked it out themselves," said Bill Eller, assistant superintendent of instruction. "It's pretty hard to hide a school campus."

This month, however, a full fire crew will inspect the staircase and 12 portable buildings. Fire captains have also been notified of a quicker route to reach the upper campus, Muschinski said.

Although the district requires that children be supervised while using the steps, Eller said the stairs have posed no extraordinary safety problems. "I don't see them as being at all dangerous," he said.

But parents are still fuming. They say that not only is the staircase too steep, but in the case of a fire, children hurrying down the stairs could trample each other.

"I'm not going to allow any children to climb those stairs every day," said Diane Ransom, one of the leading protesters when the stairs were installed. She has since transferred her child to another school because she says the children are isolated on the hill. "It's not a healthy environment with just 100 students."

Kay Payton, whose son attended the annex last year, said children were kept on the lower campus during rainstorms because teachers feared pupils might slip on the steps.

"My son told me he watched a movie until it stopped raining and he went back to his classroom. These students are losing critical education time because of the safety factor," Payton said.

Parents said they would donate time, work, materials and money to alter the staircase.

"We're not out to cost the school district any money. We just want our children to be safe," Payton said.

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