RICHMOND, Va. — Week after week, day after day, fire alarm panels throughout the Richmond Public School system began faltering starting at the end of 2021. School staff submitted work orders for alarm panels at 21 schools between Dec. 28, 2021 and Feb. 9, 2022 — two days before the catastrophic fire at William Fox Elementary, according to emails obtained by CBS 6 through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
"That's very disappointing to hear that something so important to keep our children safe is not working properly," Stephanie Pittrell, whose daughter goes to Fox, said.
Take, for example, the panel at Mary Munford Elementary. The principal there submitted a work order on December 28 saying they had been having issues with the panel for two months.
Five days after the Fox fire, Richmond Alarm told RPS they were unable to fix the panel at Munford and told them to contact someone else.
That's seven weeks after the work order was submitted.
"To me it seems like there needs to be something done with the company or get a new company involved if they're having all this back and forth and not getting any resolution with it," Kristen Edwards, whose son is in kindergarten at Munford, said.
Then there was the panel at Carver Elementary.
The school submitted a work order for constant beeping on January 25. By February 23, Richmond Alarm told RPS a part was on back-order and the panel still could not be fixed.
"It's neglect," Pittrell said.
And, finally, Fox Elementary, where the principal submitted a work order on Feb. 2 for three faults on the alarm panel.
Richmond Alarm told RPS the panel at Fox needed to be reprogrammed with the 804 area code, but they would have to call another company to do it.
Without the 804 area code, the panel was unable to dial Richmond Alarm to alert them of an alarm going off.
We now know the panel was never reprogrammed and, when firefighters initially responded to a fire alarm call at Fox on February 11, they had trouble understanding what the panel was telling them.
They spent about 12 minutes inside the school investigating and then left.
Fire crews returned just 26 minutes later to a school engulfed in flames.
"It's sad because if this was during the day it could have been very dangerous," Pittrell said.
After the fire, Richmond Alarm did a full assessment of all Richmond school buildings and found at least 25 of them had fire alarm panels that were not testing properly.
"I congratulate you on the research you did, and what you have uncovered is a rat's nest," retired Superintendent Dr. Charles Maranzano, who used to lead school divisions in New Jersey and Virginia, said. "It's inexcusable."
CBS 6 Problem Solver Melissa Hipolit showed him thousands of pages of emails obtained through FOIA.
"What I read in these emails and exchanges is absolutely unforgivable from a superintendent's perspective," Maranzano said.
Robert Trayer in RPS facilities actually highlighted the need to fix the 804 reprogramming issues to Richmond Alarm back on January 21 and asked for a repair timeline.
But, during the full assessment after the Fox fire, emails show dozens of panels were not working properly — and Richmond Alarm was not able to fix them.
"That is cause for concern, they need to make sure that the systems, whether it's just the dialer, or some other type of deficiency in the system, that needs to be fixed as soon as possible," Robbie Dawson, with the National Fire Protection Association, said.
"So we can try to prevent this from happening again, would you recommend the school system, if they receive word from the alarm monitoring company that it's not communicating with them, that they should contact the fire marshal?" Melissa Hipolit asked Dawson.
"Absolutely. They should have that conversation with the local fire official for a couple of reasons. One is to make sure they're in compliance with the code. The second is to make sure they're responding resources know what they're walking in the door to. If the system is down, those responding engine companies will know, we may have an issue with the notification system in the school," Dawson replied.
On the night of the fire, Richmond fire crews did not seem to know the alarm panel at Fox needed to be reprogrammed.
Sarah Abubaker, the spokesperson for RPS, confirmed they did not contact the fire department about all of the issues with alarm panels.
"If the alarms and things had been addressed before, this whole thing could have been prevented," Edwards said.
The superintendent for RPS Jason Kamras declined to do an interview with CBS 6 on the topic.
Abubaker clarified late Tuesday that Kamras was willing to do an interview, but she hadn't been able to schedule one yet.
Melissa Hipolit submitted her initial request for an interview with Kamras on April 27th to Abubaker, and followed up with several subsequent requests.
Abubaker said before Fox, RPS only thought there were a few fire panels that needed to be reprogrammed or replaced and those were on the capital improvement expenditures.
She also highlighted that Richmond Alarm was purchased by Johnson Controls earlier this year, and, when that happened, they stopped hiring the third-party contractors needed to service proprietary panels and made RPS do that.
"We are working with procurement to secure access to several vendors to provide fire system repairs and services," Abubaker said. "We are operating under emergency repairs to fire alarm panels and working toward securing contracts through procurement."
Abubaker said all panels are now working and communicating.
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