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Fox fire response was hindered because somebody didn't reprogram alarm panel

Posted at 3:55 PM, Feb 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 14:58:28-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The alarm company that Richmond Public Schools contracts to monitor its fire alarms said it was not responsible for reprogramming the panels with an 804 area code. The failure to reprogram those panels resulted in a smoke alarm at Fox Elementary not registering with the alarm company, Richmond Schools officials told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers.

That initial Fox Elementary alarm, triggered by a smoke detector at 9:21 p.m. on Friday, February 11, did not make its way through the phone line to the alarm company because the alarm panel at Fox was not reprogrammed with the 8-0-4 area code. Verizon and other phones companies started requiring area codes to be added to all local calls in October 2021.

Fox fire smoke alarms 03.png

Instead, a passerby noticed the alarm and called 911.

When firefighters arrived just before 9:30 p.m., they could not reach anyone with the school system, so they called the alarm company for more information.

"The alarm company is not showing any activation or active alarms," firefighters at Fox Elementary said, according to 911 dispatch audio.

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 thought it was directing them to a photodetector on the second floor in classroom 32.

But, Richmond Public Schools confirmed there is no classroom 32 at Fox, and that number referenced Zone 32.

Making matters more complicated, the fire department said the alarm panels at the school indicated they were in "trouble condition" rather than alarm mode.

"Trouble condition" indicates an issue with the detector itself, meaning firefighters thought something was wrong with the detector on their initial visit, not that there was smoke in the building.

They spent about 12 minutes inside the school investigation and then left. They returned just 26 minutes later to a burning school.

Richmond firefighters inside Fox Elem.png

Whose job it is to reprogram the alarm panel?

Johnson Controls, which acquired Richmond Alarm in January, said it was not their responsibility to reprogram the alarm panels.

"Johnson Controls monitors the fire alarms, we do not service the equipment at Fox Elementary School," Kari Pfisterer, the Director of Public Relations and Media for Johnson Controls, told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers.

"We are exploring whose responsibility that is and how it can be corrected.  I think that's the most important thing at this time," Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said.

Richmond Schools spokesperson Sarah Abubaker said the school system was auditing the alarm systems to learn more.

Questions were posed to Richmond Schools about whether school officials knew the alarm panels were not working properly at Fox and any other schools prior to the fire. The school system has not yet provided answers to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers.

As for the current status of all the alarm panels in Richmond schools, Kamras said he believed they had been updated but he would verify.

Johnson Controls said it was working with the school district and local authorities to support the investigation.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.