Inspection reports note alarm panel issue 6 months before Fox Elementary fire

Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 2:54 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 25, 2022 at 7:10 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Inspection reports released by the Richmond Fire Department (RFD) through the Freedom of Information Act show several violations at William Fox Elementary School just six months before fire ripped through the building.

The most recent inspection of the school was conducted on Aug. 24, 2021. The Richmond Fire Marshal noted a number of violations, but it was the alarm system issue that jumped out, especially after fire crews noted an alarm issue the night of Feb. 11 before the massive fire.

According to a timeline provided by Richmond Fire officials, when crews originally got on scene around 9:40 p.m. two weeks ago, they found an alarm panel in “trouble condition”.

That’s the same condition noted in the August 2021 inspection of Fox Elementary.

That condition is essentially an issue with the monitoring device - usually a detector.

“The panel was a red herring for a lot of other things,” said Richmond Public Schools (RPS) spokeswoman Sarah Abubaker.

The August report stated the school had until Sept. 30, 2021 to correct the number of violations noted.

However, Abubaker said Friday was the first time they ever saw the inspection report and added the alarm system was functioning last summer.

“In September, Johnson Controls reviewed the alarm panel at Fox,” Abubaker said. “They found it was functioning and was functioning all the way up until the night of February 11.”

According to the Johnson Controls inspection, there was an issue with the panel’s battery backup, kicking out under 40% amperage and it was an older battery than the company likes to see, per Abubaker.

“To be clear, that battery only impacts the system isn’t online, it’s directly hardwired to the building,” she added. “In the case of Fox, the power to Fox was on the entire time; we know because our security cameras were on.”

Meanwhile, RPS said the inspection report from August 2021 was never sent to them from the fire marshal. Messages to RFD regarding this matter were not immediately returned.

Despite the number of violations, including exit lights outs and furniture in the way of things, Abubaker believes a higher tech security system would still have had the same result at Fox.

“RFD was at Fox for 40 minutes and they cleared the building,” she added. “In less than 20 minutes from clearing the building, there are flames visible on top of the building.”

According to RFD’s timeline, crews were called to the school around 9:29 p.m. for a report of a fire alarm.

“They were dispatched after the Department of Emergency Communications (DEC) received a call from a passerby, who stated they could hear an alarm sounding and could see strobe lights flashing in the building,” a news release said. “DEC never received a fire alarm notification from the Richmond Alarm Company.”

The fire alarm panels notify the RPS alarm company (Richmond Alarm) by phone, according to RPS.

“Verizon recently changed its operating protocol, requiring all local calls to include the area code (804),” RPS said in a news release. “The panel had not yet been updated to reflect this change. As a result, the alarm at Fox did not register with Richmond Alarm.”

Around 9:52 p.m., Richmond Fire said crews manipulated the lock of a maintenance entrance at the rear of the building to gain access to the ground floor. Crews then found the main alarm panel which did not show any indication of a fire alarm activation.

“Crews then searched the inside of the entire building twice, checking all floors and found no indication of any hazards,” a RFD news release said. “Thermal imaging cameras were used during the search and crews spotted nothing out of the ordinary.”

Based on the timeline, crews spent 17 minutes inside the building before locking up and leaving the property.

“There’s no way a thorough inspection of a 58,000 square foot building could have been cleared from danger in 10 minutes,” Abubaker said.

RPS said Fox Elementary did not have a knox box, essentially a box that has a key to the building for first responders or building officials to access.

“There are RPS schools that do,” Abubaker said. “Our facilities teams are working to ensure every RPS school has a knox box.”

Upon the release of the inspection reports Friday afternoon, the Fire Marshal indicated, “that though violations are noted on the most recent report, he is opining they were not contributory to the fire origin.”

The cause of the fire is still under investigation and could take several more weeks to complete.

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