FERRIER FILES: Tennessee sheriff at odds with fire marshal over classroom safety device

(Fox 17 News)

The cellphone video of children helplessly trapped in Florida classrooms was too much for Perry County Sheriff Nick Weems and his wife.

The Weems put up $500 of their own money and informed the community that the plan was to put temporary barricade locks and ballistic film for the windows of every Perry County classroom.

“So I can protect my kids from getting shot, its simple,” Weems said.

In 10 days, they had raised enough money to put a special lock in all 90 classrooms.

The money came from across the country.

“It wasn’t just Perry County," Rosanna Weems said. "It was from all over. Most people said 'I want to protect a door.' People are taking these shootings very personally."

Then all of a sudden, the whole project was in jeopardy. The Tennessee State Fire Marshal informed the sheriff that the device he chose, the night lock, is illegal to use in Tennessee schools.

The fire marshal quoted a code that says the lock must be placed between 36 inches and 48 inches, must be opened with one motion, and it requires special knowledge.

The sheriff believes those rules don't work if you are trying to stop an active shooter from entering a room. Sheriff Weems said he can't find a lock with those restrictions that would stop a shooter.

“This is what we need to protect our kids," Weems said. "Not a dead bolt. We have that. We need them to get out of our way and let us protect our children in our school."

The state fire marshal said his office can order the county to take the locks out of the schools, and they can take them to court if they refuse.

Perry County Schools Director Eric Lomax said his hands are tied.

“We would love to have these items," Lomax said. "I think it would save lives, but I can't put them in. I would be liable. The school system would be liable. We can’t do this if the fire marshal is going to call it a codes violation."

Fox 17 News Investigative Reporter Dennis Ferrier asked the state fire marshal if they're being too strict with these codes.

“We support them to make sure everyone is safe in schools, and the codes have worked," said State Fire Marshal Spokesman Kevin Walters. "We want kids to be safe from fire and intruders."

The sheriff argues something different.

“Wer'e not having children die in fire in schools," Weems said. "They are getting shot like its open season. We haven’t had a mass casualty fire in this country since 1958."

Gallatin Building Official Chuck Stuart said the fire marshal is wrong. Stuart said the state fire marshal should know the code gives him room to protect kids from shooters.

“What was said there, to me, wasn't true," Stuarts said. "I don't care what code you're on now. You look at the code. There is room for interpretation. This can be done."

Stuart said look for yourself. Locks used only for security purposes and not used for normal operation are permitted at any height.

He said there is all kinds of wiggle room in defining special knowledge and defining the motion it takes to open a door.

This lock would never be used in normal operation, according to Stuart. If it was ever used even once, it would be in an emergency security situation.

“It's common sense to me," Stuart said. "It's one thing about building codes. If you don't use common sense and stick to the letter of the code, you are going to have a problem."

Still Sheriff Weems has a problem. He made a promise and middle Tennessee backed him up with donations.

“ I am frustrated," Weems said. "I said we are going to do something locally here, and here we are still talking, I’m not getting help. I’m getting roadblocked.”

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