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Richmond Fire blames COVID for failure to reinspect Fox Elementary before massive fire destroyed the school

Posted at 4:36 PM, Jul 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-12 23:19:10-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Jeanie Bowker does not shy away from criticizing Richmond Public Schools (RPS) for a massive fire that destroyed Fox Elementary School.

"It seems like many balls were dropped in many different areas that maybe would have prevented this," the parent of a Richmond Public Schools student said.

But, as the CBS 6 Problem Solvers uncovered, Richmond Public Schools is not the only city agency under the microscope.

An audit completed in June 2021, found a number of red flags in the Richmond Fire Marshal's inspections of schools.

Those inspections are supposed to be done yearly, but 20 schools were never inspected in 2019.

And while most Richmond schools were inspected in 2020, the audit noted that several schools had not been inspected for years prior to that.

For example, until 2020, Southampton Elementary School had not been inspected for over a decade.

On top of that, of the 40 schools that had unsatisfactory inspections in 2020, more than half were never reinspected to ensure the violations had been corrected.

"I always imagine city governance like this is a basic thing, you do your inspections and you follow up on them," Bowker said.

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Jeanie Bowker

One critical situation that was never followed up on?

A violation notice that was issued by the assistant fire marshal in August 2021 for Fox Elementary School.

The notice contained eight violations, including one that said the fire alarm panel was in trouble mode.

The violations were supposed to be corrected by the end of the next month, but the date of correction was left blank for every single one.

RELATED: Richmond Fire Department unable to determine what caused fire that destroyed William Fox Elementary

Richmond Public Schools claimed it did not receive this Notice of Violation until after a February fire burned the school to the ground.

Previous CBS 6 Problem Solvers reporting revealed firefighters found the alarm panel in trouble condition when they first arrived at Fox that February night.

The firefighters thought something was wrong with the detector on their initial visit. They then returned 26 minutes later to a burning school.

Firefighters inside Fox Elementary School.png

Richmond Public Schools parent Tanya Francis said the audit and our findings were problematic.

"If you are doing inspections and you know there are issues going on there has to be some type of system set up to tracking to go back and check and say hey you need to go back and check the school," Francis said.

The auditor forewarned the city that if the risks he uncovered were not mitigated, it could result in damage to property or injury or loss of life to staff and students.

The Fire Chief and Fire Marshal both declined interviews with the CBS 6 Problem Solvers, but a spokesperson said the Fire Prevention Office wasn't able to verify violations were corrected because of staffing and scheduling issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Because you didn't have enough employees and you're going to put my kids at harm? That doesn't equate for me. As a parent, that doesn't mean you stop doing what you are supposed to do, you do whatever you have to do, and if that means paying more man-hours paying people overtime," Francis said.

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Tanya Francis

The Problem Solvers asked Richmond City Council Member Mike Jones about the audit and the fire department's lack of follow up.

"There should have been a certain level of immediacy to get these things done," Jones said. "They've got to fix that aspect of the fire marshal's office."

But when asked if he would put pressure on the city's Chief Administrative Officer to ensure the Fire Marshal's office improved its operations, he said it was up to RPS to take action.

"Schools need to be focused on schools because that's what they say schools build schools, so they need to ensure that their assets are safe, so if there is an outstanding inspection call the fire marshal in," Jones said.

But Richmond City Council Member Kristen Nye, who sits on the audit committee, said she would work with the auditor and Fire Chief to ensure Richmond Fire makes every single change the auditor recommended.

"I want to make sure all of these recommendations get closed. It's so important when you're talking about life and safety," Nye said.

"Let's be accountable, let's stop yelling and screaming at each other, let's figure out how to fix the problem," Francis said.

Richmond Fire Department spokeswoman Amy Vu said the fire prevention office is actively working to address the issues found in the audit.

She also said it was Fire Chief Melvin Carter who actually requested the auditor take a closer look at this fire prevention office as part of an ongoing continuous improvement initiative.

Watch for Problem Solvers Investigations Tuesdays on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. Click here for more of our investigations or to submit a tip to the Problem Solvers.

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