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Richmond Schools paid $100,000+ for alarm service, so why wasn't Fox's fixed before the fire?

Posted at 12:50 PM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-23 14:02:26-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Despite a late January 2022 email from a Johnson Controls operations manager that asked Richmond Public Schools for a list of all schools that had alarm panels that needed to be reprogrammed so they could "work on getting them done ASAP," the company continues to say they were neither retained nor authorized to reprogram the panel at William Fox Elementary School.

On February 11, 2022, when a smoke alarm went off at Fox, the alarm never registered with the alarm company. It did not register because the panel was not reprogrammed with the 804 area code. That made it difficult for Richmond firefighters to understand what the panel's alert was telling them.

Firefighters spent about 12 minutes inside the school building investigating and then left.

Fire crews returned just 26 minutes later to a burning school.

Problem Solver Melissa Hipolit dug deeper into the contracts Richmond Schools has with the alarm monitoring company, Richmond Alarm, which was bought out by Johnson Controls earlier this year, to try to figure out whose responsibility it was to reprogram the panel.

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Richmond Public Schools sent the Problem Solvers a purchase order signed by Chief Operating Officer Alana Gonzalez on July 27, 2021, related to the district's old contract with Richmond Alarm.

That purchase order states Richmond Schools would pay Richmond Alarm $103,500 for monitoring, testing, and service for burglary fire and elevator alarms for FY22.

However, when you look at the original contract with Richmond Alarm from 2014, none of the services requested by the facilities department include maintenance of fire alarm systems.

The contract states "the facility service department has identified the following services to be provided by the contractor as listed below:"

  • Monthly monitoring of security systems at 75 sites
  • Monthly monitoring of fire alarm systems at 56 sites
  • Monthly monitoring of elevator call boxes at designated schools with elevators
  • Monthly maintenance and inspection costs for security systems at 75 sites

To try to clarify who was responsible for reprogramming the alarm panels, Richmond School sent the Problem Solvers an email exchange a Richmond Schools facilities staff member had with Richmond Alarm in January 2022.

Those emails showed 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 (RAC), which is now part of Johnson Controls, to fix the problem, according to emails obtained by the CBS 6 Problem Solvers from Richmond Schools.

In the emails, Robert Trayer, the structural foreman for Richmond Schools facility services, told Richmond Alarm that Richmond Schools 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 asked Trayer to confirm that Richmond Schools 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 I. 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.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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