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Inspectors found faulty Fox alarm panel 6 months before Richmond school fire

Posted at 12:29 PM, Feb 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-26 21:16:12-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- When the Richmond Fire Prevention Division inspected William Fox Elementary School on August 24, 2021, inspectors found the alarm panel in "trouble" mode and told the Richmond Public School System the problem needed to be fixed by September 30, 2021, according to a notice of violation the CBS 6 Problems Solvers obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Firefighters would find the alarm system in "trouble" condition once again when they arrived at the school six months later for a fire call just before 9:30 p.m. on Friday, February 11, 2022.

When firefighters responded based on a call from a passerby, they had trouble understanding what the panel indicated.

They inspected the school inside for about 12 minutes and then left. Twenty-six minutes later they returned to find a burning school.

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Fox Elementary School suffers 'catastrophic damage' in Richmond fire

Amy Vu, the spokesperson for the Richmond Fire Department said "trouble condition is essentially just an issue with the monitoring device (usually a detector). So examples are a malfunction or an animal that may have chewed through the wiring."

Richmond Public Schools has said the alarm panel at Fox was never reprogrammed with the 804 area code, so when a smoke detector went off in the school, the alarm company, Johnson Controls, never got the message.

Ever since Fox caught on fire, Carrie Rogers has obsessively searched for answers as to what went wrong and how to fix the problems.

"We have tens of thousands of kids right now who potentially have that feeling of am I safe in this building? I don't know. So we need to button up our system," Rogers said.

The RPS parent has two kids at Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts and is having trouble wrapping her mind around the notice of violation from August of last year.

The Assistant Fire Marshal cited RPS for the alarm system being in trouble mode and having no updated inspection report. RPS was given until September 30 to fix the problem.

However, Sarah Abubaker, a spokeswoman for RPS, said they never received an official notice of violation from the fire department. She also said RFD confirmed they never sent RPS an official report via email.

Alleged communication breakdowns that Rogers said would not necessarily surprise her after she stumbled across a city audit from June of last year that shows major system failures in school fire prevention.

According to the audit, "prior to FY2020, the Fire Marshal's Office did not have a formal process for scheduling and communicating results of the inspections. Reports were typically left with schools' representatives and violations were not forwarded to the RPS Facility Services staff. Beginning in April 2020, the inspectors started forwarding all reports to the RPS Facility Services' Director."

However, in this case, Abubaker said that did not happen.

The report found that prior to 2020, 20 of 48 schools did not have a prior inspection. In 2019, 40 schools had unsatisfactory inspections and required re-inspections and 55% of those were not reinspected to ensure the violations were fixed.

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Aerial photos show the devastation a fire caused at Fox Elementary School in Richmond, Va.

"What that says to me is there is not good communication and failures continue to happen and they will continue to happen until we know this problem has been rectified," Rogers said.

The auditor recommended the Fire Marshall update their procedures to ensure required annual inspections are addressed, implement a schedule for conducting school inspections and re-inspections and implement a standard communication process with RPS to ensure all violations are communicated to the RPS facilities staff.

"We need all of our resources right now focused on finding this breakdown and making sure we clear them out so we do not have a school system with 40 unsafe buildings," Rogers said.

RPS provided the CBS6 Problem Solvers with an inspection report completed in September of 2020 by the alarm monitoring company that shows they cleared the alarm system at Fox at that time.