Hundreds Of Fire Alarms In Sweetwater Union High School District Not Working
Thursday, October 10, 2013
Aired 10/10/13 on KPBS News.
Team 10 discovered more than 300 fire alarms that were not working properly in the Sweetwater Union High School District.
SAN DIEGO Team 10 discovered more than 300 fire alarms that were not working properly in the Sweetwater Union High School District.
Documents show this was revealed to administrators when an outside contractor went through the 28 schools in the district to test the alarms. Under the California Public Records Act, Team 10 obtained copies of the four-month-long effort by Time and Alarm Systems of Mira Loma, California.
In all, the inspectors found 485 equipment deficiencies, including broken or non-working alarms, broken or non-flashing strobes, missing parts, and hanging devices that were not hooked up. This figure includes 326 alarms and 80 strobes that were not functioning.
(Read this spreadsheet Team 10 created to review what we found. A map at the end of this article has links to actual inspection documents for each school in the district.)
The records request was made following initial stories reported by Team 10 in July and August. Those reports featured a whistleblower who said entire systems in several buildings needed upgrades, but the need was ignored by administrators. At the time, the district said in a statement all buildings were safe, and the district maintains that view.
The needed fixes, said the source, ranged from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The upgrades were approved by the Division of State Architects, as required by law.
But nothing was done after the state approval, and the deadline was approaching for the district to start some of the school upgrades. Missing the deadline would mean paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to restart the approval process.
The district was spending Proposition O money but none of it was going for the needed system upgrades even though improvements had been listed as a priority for the funds authorized by the ballot measure.
"Others in the district have expressed urgency to get started on this work," said our source, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. The whistleblower said years of delay has done nothing but frustrate people inside the district. And the potential danger for children attending the school shouldn't be downplayed.
Since our story aired, our source said the district has begun system upgrades at three schools.
The entire time we were reporting this, the district continually denied the allegations made by our whistleblower and by several other sources we developed who were familiar with the district's workings. The district sent out a press release denying the claims, including a link to our report. Read the district's press release.
But our whistleblower had also warned us of another serious issue, stating, "There are some buildings where portions of the system doesn't work."
That's when Team 10 filed an open records request, this time focusing only on existing alarms, not entire systems, in schools across the district. And once again, our sources were accurate in their depictions of the district's apparent lack of motivation to maintain individual alarms.
"I am not surprised" said our whistleblower when Team 10 shared the results of the records request.
And we shared our spreadsheet with parents -- including Bernardo Vasquez, whose two children attend school in the district. He was previously on the bond oversight committee. What we found shocked him.
"If you have one classroom that has no alarm, that is not OK," Vasquez said when Team 10 told him 300 alarms did not work.
Vasquez said his son recently told him something related to the alarms over dinner. His son had been sitting in class at Eastlake High School when an announcement came over the loud speaker system: "It's a false alarm, stay in your classroom" the voice on the loud speaker said, according to Vasquez's son.
But none of the students in his son's class had heard the alarm. At lunch time it was the talk of the lunchroom. Vasquez said his son told him some students had heard the alarm, but other classes hadn't heard a thing except the follow-up announcement.
"Assuming it had been a live fire alarm, what part of the school would have known, what part of the school would have reacted a little slower?" Vasquez said.
At Eastlake High School where the false alarm took place, Team 10 found 18 pieces of malfunctioning alarm equipment, including six alarms where the horn or strobe lights were not working.
Team 10 reported how the district neglected for years needed upgrades of entire fire alarm systems in a number of older schools. Following our first report, the district provided this information to the Proposition O Bond oversight committee.
You can see the schools listed, which need the upgrades, the approval of the proposed upgrade by the state and which approvals are expiring. Team 10 was told it costs about $200,000 to have the plans drawn up and approved. Please note the number of times the district has asked for extensions on these permits.
Team 10 received a copy of a request from the Chula Vista Fire Department to the Sweetwater Union High School District. It's directed at Superintendent Ed Brand. In the letter the Fire Marshal is asking for the most recent fire alarm inspection records.
Team 10 has been told the fire marshal for that agency has already gone to that school for an inspection. We have requested a copy of their report, and National City Fire also received copies of our spreadsheet. While they have not wanted to comment on our report, they did provide some recent inspection reports completed by their agency.
CODES: ANSUL– Ansul; HD – Heat Detector; ADM – Relay Module; DD- Duct Detector; CM – Control Module; SD – Smoke Detector; WF – Waterflow; FACP – Fire Alarm Control Panel; MM – Monitor Module; SS – Supervisor Switch; SNAC – Power Supply; PS – Pull Station; TS – Tamper Switch