Yet state records show the last time inspectors examined the school was four years ago.
Is Wasatch Junior High unique? Hardly.
Some Utah schools have no inspections recorded since the 1980s, according to state Fire Marshal's Office records. Other schools were inspected by school district employees who may have had little training. Still other schools were checked, but no one bothered to keep any records of those inspections.
Officials in the state Fire Marshal's Office are quick to point out no Utah child has died in a school fire in the 41 years since the office was created. Nonetheless, with the images of the Wasatch Junior High blaze as a backdrop, they, too, are re-examining how schools are inspected.
Last week, fire marshals announced they plan to have every school in the state formally checked, and those visits documented, within three years.
"There's not a school in this state that I feel is an imminent threat to life for the kids," Deputy State Fire Marshal Kim Passey says. "Are there imminent threats for the buildings? Yes, because they're old buildings."
Some Utah schools are routinely checked by certified inspectors. They verify in writing that they have looked at everything from alarms to exit access to how much paper is pinned to classroom walls. But like Wasatch, other schools have had no inspections recorded for years.
That does not necessarily mean no one is monitoring those schools for code compliance, but the way schools are inspected for fire hazards is wildly inconsistent.
"Our files aren't very good. Paperwork's not my favorite thing," says Kurt Fisher, who is a fire marshal special deputy assigned to monitor fire codes in the Granite School District, which includes Wasatch.
The State Fire Marshal's Office, which is charged with enforcing fire-code compliance at schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and other public buildings, has eight inspectors assigned to visit the state's more than 1,000 public and private schools.
Passey says some rural schools receive regular inspections because inspectors assigned to those areas have fewer schools to worry about, plus the fire marshal hires some part-time inspectors to help.
But for schools in and around Salt Lake City, just reviewing construction plans keeps inspectors busy, so the fire marshal relies on people such as Fisher to be special deputies in many of the state's school districts.
The special deputies are district employees working in maintenance or a building trade who are assigned to act as fire marshals in that district. The idea is that because those personnel already work in the schools and know safety protocols and building codes, they can do an adequate job as in-house fire marshals.
Conflict of interest? Some criticize the designation of special deputies because conflicts of interest may arise whenever people draw paychecks from the schools they inspect. "It's a fox watching the henhouse," says Larry Wiley, a Democratic state representative and building services supervisor for Salt Lake City.
Special deputies interviewed say they occasionally have trouble making school employees comply with requests to address potential fire hazards, but Passey adds that the fire marshal tells schools they are not to threaten deputies with retaliation for enforcing fire codes. No one interviewed described any such occurrences.
Formal training, which is not required of special deputies, is another matter. "I could swear you in as a special deputy right now," Passey said in an interview last week.
Some special deputies have more training than others.
One in the Davis School District is a former firefighter. The special deputy in the Murray City School District, who assumed the job in April, says he's attending classes to obtain a fire inspector certification.
Passey, who oversees training, says the fire marshal likes special deputies to pass a test to obtain an Inspector I certification, but the office doesn't require it. Inspector I means the inspector has a working knowledge of the fire codes.
The fire marshal offers training courses to special deputies twice a year, but Passey says the deputies are not required to attend "because sometimes school districts won't pay" to send people.
He adds it's not necessary to possess highly technical knowledge of the fire codes; the special deputies are looking for obvious hazards such as blocked exits and large stacks of paper.
"It's not rocket science. Would you allow a frayed extension cord in your home?" Passey asks, giving an example of what the deputies are monitoring.
The special deputies work closely with the fire marshal's office, Passey says, and know they can call if they have a concern.
But even the inspections themselves vary widely.
Rod Pace, the special deputy in the Murray district, says his district wants schools inspected once a year before the school year begins.
The Granite district's Fisher says inspections are conducted on an as-needed basis. Inspecting an elementary school can take three or four hours, he says, and a high school can take all day, assuming no problems are found. Cottonwood High School, for example, has 1,200 smoke detectors, or as Fisher puts it, "1,200 things to go wrong."
Record-keeping also is spotty. The fire marshal does work closely with the deputies and maintains oversight of their work, but it's tough for parents to learn about their children's schools.
The fire marshal does not require special deputies to keep records. Some districts do and others don't.
Spotty record-keeping: Passey acknowledges record-keeping is irregular, and says that's one reason the State Fire Marshal's Office last week announced it will formally inspect every school in the state, and document the visits, in the coming three years.
The Fire Marshal's Office and the special deputies defend their arrangement, saying the deputies are committed to safety and work closely enough with the office to allow it to maintain oversight.
"My kids go to school here, too," says Ben Sorenson, a special deputy in the Alpine School District and that district's energy management and technology coordinator, "so I want to make sure we uphold the highest standards." Fire Marshal Chief Deputy Brent Halladay says his office is doing everything it can to make school inspections efficient.
He cites National Fire Protection Association data that shows of the 3,900 fire fatalities in the United States last year, 82 percent occurred in homes.
Halladay says his office is "eons ahead of where" it was in 1991, when a Salt Lake Tribune investigation reported 30 percent of the Utah's then-771 public schools hadn't received a fire inspection in more than a decade. Back then, the fire marshal had only four inspectors.
Safety not always practical: Schools and Halladay's office also point out money is a factor. Schools are required to comply with fire codes based on the year their buildings were built, and often it's not practical to pay to retrofit old building with sprinklers and other safety features found in newer schools. "Sometimes [fire inspectors] come in and say you have to do this and you say, 'Well, gee whiz, we'd have to tear the building down,' " said Carl Boyington, executive director of the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals.
Halladay says his office is aware of costs and knows it sometimes must "negotiate" compliance.
The Davis School District, for example, built an addition to Kaysville Junior High School in 2003 and building codes said the addition needed sprinklers, according to documents.
But the Fire Marshal's Office waived the sprinkler requirement in exchange for a buildingwide fire detection and alarm system. The previous system only had devices in the corridors and hallways. Halladay says such arrangements still allow buildings to meet minimum code requirements if not necessarily making them as safe as they could be.
Playing politics: The willingness to be flexible isn't just an effort to accommodate schools. Halladay acknowledges the fire marshal also must play politics. Being too stringent would draw lawmakers' ire, he says.
"If you're not reasonable, you don't survive," Halladay says.
He later added: "We try to be as reasonable as we can while keeping in mind everyone's safety."
In older schools, Passey says, emphasis is placed not on stopping every fire, but on ensuring students can escape the building. That has meant making sure alarms are functioning, exits are clear and classrooms aren't overcrowded.
Schools are required to keep logs of their fire drills that can be obtained from each school or the district. Elementary schools have monthly drills, and secondary schools have them quarterly.
Across the board, Passey says students evacuate buildings in less than two minutes.
"Kids are getting out in a timely manner, and if I'm a parent, that's all that matters," Passey says.
School safety solution?
l The problem: An unknown number of Utah schools, some of which are old and without modern fire prevention features, are not receiving formal inspections on a regular basis. Whether and what kind of inspections schools are receiving, and what qualifications inspectors have, is unclear due to inconsistent record-keeping.
l The problem surfaced after a July 11 fire destroyed Wasatch Junior High School in the Granite School District. State records show the school was last inspected in 2001.
l What's being done: The State Fire Marshal's Office plans to inspect every Utah school, and document the visits, within three years.