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Fox principal requested fire alarm repairs 10 days before catastrophic fire: 'Crushing to see'

Fox principal requested fire alarm repairs 10 days before catastrophic fire: 'Crushing to see'
Posted at 4:53 PM, Mar 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-17 08:41:04-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Just ten days before a catastrophic fire destroyed William Fox Elementary School, the school's principal, Daniela Jacobs, submitted a work order to have the fire alarm repaired because it had three error messages that required her to "silence the alarms".

This new information was obtained by CBS6 Problem Solvers through a Freedom of Information Act request.

On February 11 when a smoke alarm went off at Fox, the alarm never registered with the alarm company because the panel had never been reprogrammed with the 804 area code.

Verizon and other phone companies started requiring area codes to be added to all local calls in October 2021.

Because the alarm failed to deliver the message to Johnson Controls about what type of detector had gone off and where it was located, firefighters 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 burning school.

The work order said RPS "contacted RAC to make repairs on February 2," but no completion date is listed. Under the status, it says "waiting for more information."

RPS spokeswoman Sarah Abubaker said she has not found any evidence Richmond Alarm ever came to fix the issue.

RPS parent Jeannie Bowker said the work order was "crushing to see."

Per the work order, the error messages read "preaction trip," "DACT Fault acct 1," and "DACT Fault account 2."

Another staff member at Fox also submitted work orders on February 3 for a mice infestation at the school and a thermostat going out which made the room very hot.

In the "action taken" portion of the thermostat order, the order said, "repaired wires that were damaged by animal chewing on them."

CBS6 Problem Solvers showed the work orders to School Board Vice-Chair Kenya Gibson (3rd District) who said "there is a structural issue within the division." We also showed her an email exchange an RPS facilities staff member had with Richmond Alarm in January.

The emails show facilities staff for Richmond Public Schools knew several fire alarm panels throughout the school system were not dialing the area code back on January 21 and asked Richmond Alarm, which is now part of Johnson Controls, to fix the problem, according to emails obtained by CBS6 from RPS.

In the emails, Robert Trayer, the structural foreman for RPS facility services, told Richmond Alarm RPS was getting "multiple calls from RAC concerning communication failures throughout the district."

Trayer then told RAC the school system "verified on several that the phone lines for the panels are not dialing the area code (804)."

In response, an operations manager for Richmond Alarm, Jeff Patterson, requested a list of all the schools that needed to be reprogrammed and said "we'll work on getting them done ASAP."

In the emails, Patterson asks Trayer to confirm that RPS requested panels at G.H. Reid Elementary, Overby-Sheppard Elementary, Barack Obama Elementary and Fairfield Court Elementary to be reprogrammed.

Trayer said "yes that's the first wave that came in yesterday," and then asked Patterson to "check and see what the other buildings that came in yesterday for failure to communicate. I know Binford was one."

Patterson stated he would get with the monitoring center and "have them supply me a list of sites as well."

But, Kari Pfisterer, the director of public relations and media for Johnson Controls maintains that it was not the company's responsibility to reprogram the panel at Fox.

"Neither Johnson Controls or the Richmond Alarm Company was retained or authorized to re-program the proprietary alarm panel with its proprietary software at Fox Elementary for 10-digit dialing," Pfisterer said.

"I know myself and other board members have called the administration to look at a reorganization. Ultimately, when we look at what is happening within that operations team, something is just not working," Gibson said.

The CBS6 Problem Solvers submitted a FOIA for RPS' contract with the alarm company and were sent a contract with Richmond Alarm that expired in August of 2020 and a contract with Johnson Controls for water-based suppression systems, which Fox did not have.

"I think there are numerous contracts that are expired and then don't get revisited, so this is something we can look at from a policy standpoint as a board," Gibson said.

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