Firefighters didn't know where initial alarm detected smoke because RPS never responded

What led up to the fire at Fox Elementary?
Posted at 6:45 PM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 14:53:11-05

RICHMOND, Va. — A custodial manager handling night security for Richmond Public Schools (RPS) was asleep at 9:46 p.m. on Friday when a text came in about a fire alarm at Fox Elementary School, so firefighters did not know exactly where the alarm detected smoke in the school on their initial visit.

Firefighters thought an alarm panel indicated the detector was in classroom 32, but there is no classroom 32. The alert on the panel actually meant the interior of the front entry in zone 32, according to the fire department who cited RPS.

Further complicating the initial response, the alarm company used by RPS, Richmond Alarm, never got the alarm alert because RPS had not yet updated their alarm panel to include the area code.

The alarm panel uses a phone line to communicate with the alarm company and Verizon recently changed its operating protocol to require an area code to be used for all local calls.

Fire crews searched the entire school twice, using thermal imaging cameras but did not find anything out of the ordinary, according to the fire department.

Just before 9:30 on Friday night, firefighters raced to Fox Elementary School in The Fan after a citizen reported an alarm sounding inside.

"Going to be third party information, call is a passerby who can see visual and hear audible alarms coming from the location," dispatcher communication captured on Broadcastify said.

Once there, they called Richmond Public Schools' radio channel but got no answer, so they tried the alarm company and searched the perimeter of the building where they found nothing "out of the ordinary."

But the alarm company said they could not reach RPS and did not have any activation of any active alarms.

RPS said Monday, a vacancy in their night security team led to a gap in coverage between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. that night, so the custodial manager sent a two-way emergency communications radio home with a custodial supervisor, but "the radio was not fully monitored during this period."

The manager was asleep when the initial text came in about the fire alarm around 9:46. So the firefighters located the alarm panel themselves by looking through a window and found it in "trouble condition," according to the fire department.

Crews then manipulated a lock to get into the building and located the main alarm panel, which did not indicate any activation of a fire alarm activation.

According to Richmond Fire, they then searched the inside of the entire school twice using thermal imaging cameras, checking all floors and found nothing out of the ordinary. Crews then locked the building back up at 10:09 pm.

Twenty-six minutes later, crews raced back to find a burning school.

The Fire Marshall and the school's insurance company are investigating the fire. RPS said it is working to tighten its night security profiles.

“Though our communication breakdown did not impact the outcome of the fire, it’s clear we need to tighten our night security protocols, and have already begun to do so. Safety remains our number one priority and we are incredibly grateful that no one was seriously injured in this fire," Superintendent Jason Kamras said.

A Hand to Hold 2023

Help find these kids in Virginia’s foster system loving homes

📱 Download CBS 6 News App
The app features breaking news alerts, live video, weather radar, traffic incidents, closings and delays and more.