Why more than 20 Richmond schools don't have fire sprinklers: 'It's cost prohibitive'

Fox Elementary fire 01.png
Posted at 6:34 PM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-01 23:44:28-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- A devastating fire at William Fox Elementary has led to questions about safety measures inside Richmond Public Schools from outdated alarm panels to a gap in security staffing. Now, the CBS 6 Problem Solvers are digging deeper into why fire sprinklers were never installed at Fox.

The daily routine for 10-year-old Kaelyn DuVal has dramatically changed over the past few weeks, reminiscent of life during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fifth-grader has been logging into class online from her home since a fire destroyed her school on February 11.

“Losing Fox is awful," Kaelyn's mom, Becca DuVal said. "I easily wept more than my children did. Now that they're in virtual school, I'm weeping even more.”

As DuVal anxiously waits for conclusions from the Richmond Fire Department about what may have started the blaze, she can't help but wonder if her kids' classrooms might not be covered in ashes had Fox been equipped with an extra fire prevention measure.

“I do know that we didn't have sprinklers," DuVal said. "And I do know that when a building catches fire, sprinklers go a long way in containing it.”

Her sentiment is backed by fire experts. According to Keith Johnson who leads the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and the Loudoun County Fire Department, commercial sprinklers are designed to detect a fire in an early stage, keep it in check, and partially extinguish the flames until firefighters arrive.

Johnson said he's seen sprinklers prove to be effective on multiple occasions.

“I can give you countless examples of how they've worked in Loudoun County and have saved the school," Johnson said. “Oftentimes, if they have a sprinkler system, the sprinkler system has put the fire out and there’s just smoke in the school.”

Johnson explained that all new schools designed in the Commonwealth must have a sprinkler system per the current statewide building code. However, when Fox was built more than a century ago, such a code did not exist.

There's also no requirement for older schools to be retroactively fitted for sprinklers. Additionally, he explained that when schools make major renovations, they're sometimes required to become up to date with the modern building code.

Richmond Public Schools superintendent, Jason Kamras, said it's common for historic buildings to not have sprinklers and the district owns some of the oldest in the state.

“That is something that, given the state of our facilities, is, of course, a concern," Kamras said. “There are definite disadvantages when you have buildings that are 70, 80, 90, 100, 110 years old."

According to an audit summary obtained by CBS 6, 30 out of 54 RPS facilities in the district do not have sprinklers installed including 16 elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools.

Compared to the surrounding counties which have relatively newer buildings, all 64 schools in Chesterfield have sprinklers, 23 out of 25 schools in Hanover have sprinklers, and 58 out of 73 total facilities for Henrico Schools have sprinklers.

“The cost of putting in a sprinkler system compared to replacing a school obviously is a risk-benefit analysis," said Johnson.

Johnson said the biggest obstacle in retroactively fitting schools for sprinklers is the expense. According to an RPS source, the district did not obtain a cost estimate for retrofitting Fox.

According to Guardian Fire Protection services, it can cost up to $10 per square foot for historic buildings and several other factors could impact costs such as pipe materials and design. Fox is 58,000 square feet.

When asked if retrofitting schools for sprinklers could be an option considering the costs, Richmond School Board member Jonathan Young responded, "the short answer is yes."

Young said the proposed budget for next year if adopted as passed, would contain an additional $9 million for capital projects which could potentially be reassigned for fire mitigation with enough support from the school board.

“It's incumbent on us to budget accordingly, and to allocate resources in a way that we ensure that every one of our children along with our teachers are safe at all times," Young said.

As DuVal waits to see what's next for her kids without a school, she pushes for more funding from all levels of government to protect children like Kaelyn, a self-proclaimed "Fox Girl."

“It is the moral thing to do," DuVal said. "I mean, come on they’re kids. If you need no other reason, please, it's for the kids. Make sure that their schools are safe.”

Richmond Public Schools sent CBS 6 this statement in response to our story:

"RPS has explored sprinklers and it is a priority for us to update our schools with modern safety features but in our research, we found that the cost is incredibly prohibitive and invasive to a school building. Because of those factors we only look at retrofitting schools with sprinklers when we are doing a full renovation of the school and the building is vacant."