Richmond Fire inspection process questioned months before Fox Elementary fire

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — An inspection report from the now burned-out Fox Elementary School shows eight fire code violations and Richmond Public Schools says it never received the documents.

The Richmond Fire Department released its inspection records for William Fox Elementary on Friday after 8News submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records.

The documents, from 2010, show months — and up to a year, in some cases — between the initial violations and when the department listed them as resolved.

The most recent report, dated August 24, 2021, stated that all code violations were to be corrected by September 30, 2021, but it appears that these corrections were never made.

The 2021 report showed more than double the number of violations found in previous reports. Most inspections revealed two or three infractions, but a September 2013 inspection revealed five infractions.

There were also apparent inconsistencies in the frequency of inspections. While inspections generally seemed to be annual, there were also sometimes big gaps in the record – particularly in a period from 2016 to 2019 when the school went nearly three years without an inspection.

An audit of the Richmond Fire Department conducted by City Auditor Louis Lassiter reveals that a number of these issues were resolved in June 2021.

According to the audit, 40 of the 48 schools inspected had “unsatisfactory inspections”.

The auditor’s office concluded in the report that schools without inspections and unaddressed violations could threaten the lives and safety of staff and students.

The audit also explained that prior to 2020, the Office of the Fire Marshal did not have a formal process for sharing inspection results. Reporting was generally left to school representatives and violations were not escalated to facility services staff at Richmond Schools.

Beginning in April 2020, inspectors from the Office of the Fire Marshal began forwarding all reports to the Richmond Schools Facilities Services Director, according to the audit.

Sarah Abubaker, spokeswoman for Richmond Public Schools, said the updated communication system described in the audit was never fully introduced.

“There was no consistent reporting structure,” Abubaker said. “Sometimes we got reports and other times, like Fox, we didn’t.”

The revelation of the documents caused her to worry about the number of other schools that may have unreported code violations.

“Now we’re concerned about code violations that they haven’t told us about,” Abubaker said.

The 2021 inspection also reported several obstructions, including a photocopier covering an exit to one of the classrooms and chains on the doors of an exit ramp (although these chains were reportedly removed daily by security guards). maintenance during school hours).

At 9:46 p.m. on February 11, Richmond Fire was unable to enter Fox Elementary when responding to the fire, as the guard official was reportedly asleep and did not see the text.

Other violations during the 2021 inspection included an obstructed electrical panel, an extension cord used as a substitute for permanent wiring, and “combustible materials” in boiler rooms and sprinkler rooms.

8News contacted the Office of the Fire Marshal for comment on one of these discrepancies and they did not respond at the time of this report.

The alarm panel was found to be faulty months before the Fox fire

The August 2021 inspection report also revealed that the alarm system was in “problem” mode and there was no updated annual inspection report.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, when an alarm is in “trouble” mode, there is an electronic or mechanical problem with the alarm, such as a faulty circuit.

Abubaker said the company behind the alarm system, Johnson Controls, had been contacted to fix it. A September service report from the company confirms that the “problem” mode issue has been resolved.

On February 11, 2022, the school’s alarm system would have excluded a vital set of numbers needed to begin alerting authorities – the city’s 804 area code.

Firefighters were initially confused as to the nature of the alarm, according to Fire Chief Melvin Carter.

“We don’t know if it was a fire alarm, a motion detector. We are still investigating,” Carter said at a news conference the day after the fire.

Abubaker said she believed Johnson Controls should have updated the 804 area code during its September inspection.

A statement from a Johnson Controls spokesperson, however, disputed that claim, saying, “Johnson Controls monitors fire alarms, we do not repair Fox Elementary School equipment.”

The existence of the September service report seems to dispute this assertion.

Abubaker further added that since the Fox fire, all fire panels inside Richmond Public Schools have been inspected and “all but 10 are functioning properly”.

Abubaker said those 10 panels will still sound an alarm, and Johnson Controls is working to “install a cell dialer to replace the non-working landline.”

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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