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Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin April 6, 2015
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman April 6, 2015

In debate on school gun bill, a legislator says there have been 'zero' fatal school fires in U.S.

By next school year, some school workers may be allowed to pack heat. A bill that has received approval by some legislative panels would allow superintendents to designate certain K-12 employees to carry concealed firearms.

State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a sponsor of the bill, said the measure makes a lot of sense considering school shootings of recent years.

Here’s what he said during a Florida House judiciary committee hearing April 2:

"Right now our schools are required to do two or three fire drills a year. You know how many children in the history of the United States have died in a fire? Zero. You know how many have died because of a school shooting? Quite a few, but the state doesn’t require them to do any type of training. So this would require them to do, every year two times, school safety training as it relates to active shooters to work out these type of details that need to be worked out."

The committee voted in favor of the bill -- as did two other House panels in March.

We were alerted to Steube’s statement about the lack of fatal school fires by Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout who tweeted about it. So we decided to check it out.  

Data on school fires

Steube told PolitiFact Florida that he "definitely misspoke" about school fires.

"I was talking about Florida," said Steube, who first proposed such legislation in 2013 after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. "There has never been in the history of Florida a child who died in a school fire."

Steube said the point he was trying to make is that Florida schools are required to do fire drills, but not lockdown drills. (Staff analysis of the bill states that schools must develop procedures for hostage and weapons situations; Steube’s bill inserts language that requires schools to do drills for active shooter/hostage situations.)

Some school districts already do lockdown drills including in Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade Pasco and Pinellas counties.

We drew information about fatal school fires from the National Fire Protection Association. The association lists school fires with 10 or more deaths. Most of the fires go back to the first half of the 20th century.

We will summarize a few of the fires:

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  • Consolidated School in New London, Texas: This school fire has the largest number of fatalities documented by the association. A gas explosion in March 18, 1937, led to the deaths of 294 students and teachers at the school which was next to an oil refinery. A teacher turned on a sanding machine in an area filled with a mixture of gas and air, which set off the fire. "Immediately the building seemed to lift in the air and then smashed to the ground. Walls collapsed. The roof fell in and buried its victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris," states history from a museum that memorializes the fire.

  • Lakeview School in Collinwood, Ohio: A suburban Cleveland elementary school caught fire and killed 173 children and three adults on March 4, 1908. A furnace set fire to wooden supports, and the conflagration quickly spread throughout the building.

  • Our Lady of the Angels school, Chicago: On Dec. 1 , 1958, fire broke out at the foot of a stairway in the school, killing 90 pupils and three nuns. A student smoking might have been the cause.

Thankfully, those types of fires are no longer common due to modern safety standards. "In recent years, the very few deaths that do occur in schools tend to be either adults or juvenile firesetters who set a fire in the school," said Marty Ahrens, who works for the association.

In recent decades, the association has collected fire data through the federal government’s National Fire Incident Reporting System and its own survey. Between 2007-11, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 5,690 structure fires in educational properties including day cares, K-12 schools and colleges. These fires caused an annual average of 85 civilian fire injuries and $92 million in direct property damage. 

In search of fires at schools in Florida

Since Steube told us that he meant to say there had been no children who died in fires at Florida schools, we asked state experts if they could recall any.

A spokeswoman for the state fire marshal said there were no fire-related fatalities in K-12 schools between 2000 and 2014, which includes all available incidents in the fire marshal’s database.

We did find a case of a 4-year-old girl dying in a fire at a day care center in Tallahassee. A malfunctioning fan caused a fire at Stepping Stones child care center in Tallahassee in 2008. The day before the fire, a problem with a bathroom exhaust fan was noted on a repair sheet. A "floater" teacher assigned to the girl and her class that day had not yet been trained on what to do in a fire and was scheduled to be trained that day, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

We also found records of a dormitory fire in 1914 that killed six children and two staff members at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, the infamous reform school in Marianna (although that was a penal institution and not a traditional school). The school’s superintendent and staff were on a "pleasure bent" in town when the fire started. The superintendent was dismissed after facts were presented to a grand jury. The school was shut down in 2011 after a bleak history full of rape, torture and unreported child deaths.

Our ruling

When talking about a bill to designate certain people in K-12 schools to carry firearms, Steube said "You know how many children in the history of the United States have died in a fire (at school)? Zero."

There have been at least eight school fires with 10 or more deaths in the United States, though the most recent one was in 1958, according to a national association that tracks such fatal fires. None on that list were in Florida.

Steube admitted that he misspoke -- he meant to say no children died in school fires in Florida. 

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Gary Fineout, Tweet, April 2, 2015

Florida Channel, House judiciary committee hearing, April 2, 2015

Florida House, HB 19 school safety, Heard in House Judiciary committee April 2, 2015

National Fire Protection Association, "School fires with 10 or more deaths," last update January 2013

Wikipedia, Our Lady of the Angels school fire, Accessed April 2, 2015

New London Museum, Website, Accessed April 2, 2015

Florida Department of Children and Families, Child fatalities database, 2009-2015

Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, House panel backs teacher gun bill, March 12, 2015

Tampa Bay Times, "For their own good: A St. Petersburg Times special report on child abuse at the Florida school for boys," April 17, 2009

Sun Newspapers Cleveland Ohio, "The neighborhood never forgets," Oct. 8, 1998

The State, Article about Cleveland school fire, Nov. 20, 2003

The Plain Dealer, "Collinwood fire: 100 years later, an angel still kneels over the children," March 2, 2008

Cleveland Historical, "Collinwood school fire," April 2, 2015

USA Today, "4-year-old girl killed in Fla. day care center fire," July 11,  2008

Tallahassee Democrat, "Faulty fan noted prior to fatal fire," Feb. 19, 2009

Interview, State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, April 2, 2015

Interview, Annalee Morris, legislative aid to State Rep. Greg Steube, April 2, 2015

Interview, John Davidson, docent at the New London Museum, April 2, 2015

Interview, Marty Ahrens, senior manager fire analysis services National Fire Protection Association, April 2, 2015

Interview, Michelle Glady, Florida Department of Children and Families spokeswoman, April 2, 2015

Interview, Aaron Gallaher, Florida Division of Emergency Management spokesman, April 2, 2015

Interview, Ashley Carr, Florida state fire marshall spokeswoman, April 2, 2015

Interview, Linda E. Cobbe, spokeswoman Pasco County schools, April 2, 2015

Interview, Nadine Drew, spokeswoman Broward County schools, April 2, 2015

Interview, Stephen Hegarty, spokesman Hillsborough County schools, April 2, 2015

Interview, Melanie Marquez Parra, spokeswoman Pinellas County schools, April 2, 2015

Interview, John Schuster, spokesman Miami-Dade schools, April 2, 2015

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In debate on school gun bill, a legislator says there have been 'zero' fatal school fires in U.S.

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