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Richmond Public Schools fire safety in 'trouble' mode

Partially destroyed ground-floor classroom
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
The partially destroyed William F. Fox Elementary building was left open to the elements for over a year.

A VPM News investigation reveals a history of spotty inspection recordkeeping and long-standing fire code violations.

Following the William F. Fox Elementary School fire in February 2022, VPM News obtained and analyzed all available fire inspection records for Richmond’s public schools from 2015–2022. Unchecked: Inside RPS fire inspections is the result.

Documentation revealed hundreds of fire code violations and a checkered history when it came to consistent inspections and resolution of fire safety problems — a concerning trend that predates the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Fox Elementary fire's cause remains unknown, a faulty alarm hampered the fire department’s response. An alarm called firefighters to the school about 30 minutes before the fire broke out, but responding fire officials weren’t able to determine the location of any smoke or fire due to a malfunctioning alarm panel.

These problems had been previously documented: Fox was cited by the Richmond Fire Department for an alarm in “trouble” mode in a 2015 inspection and again in August 2021, as well as for missing paperwork regarding an annual alarm test. According to the National Fire Protection Association, a “trouble” mode alarm “means there is an issue or fault with the fire alarm system.” Virginia’s Statewide Fire Prevention Code — which follows NFPA standards — requires annual testing of fire alarm systems.

The school was also cited for the same violations in April 2020; an inspector with the city noted the last available fire alarm and sprinkler system inspections on file were dated February 2017. Additionally, a 2019 fire code violation cited Fox for emergency lights that weren’t working, with a note that “when power is lost for two days, the batteries are too weak to charge.”

Fox's destruction was devastating for parents like Katie Ricard, who spoke at a February press conference when the district briefly reopened the building's playground before work on the roof began. She has a second and fourth grader at the school; another one of her children will begin kindergarten there next year.

“It's not just a school for our elementary students,” Ricard told VPM News. “It is a community center, and it's the heart of the Fan. And our residents — whether they have kids or not — feel so deeply tied to this space.”

Luckily, the fire broke out on a Friday night — not when students like Ricard’s kids were in class.

The 2022 disaster raised questions not just about the past fire safety of Fox Elementary, but also of other schools in the district. VPM News’ analysis of fire inspection records for all schools in the district from 2015 through 2022 found that Fox wasn’t the only school with troubling fire violations in recent years and a spotty inspection record.

“We dodged a bullet that the fast-moving and dangerous fire that quickly engulfed Fox Elementary did not occur while there was a building full of young children," Del. Betsy Carr (D–Richmond) told VPM News in a statement. "We can't take that chance that luck will protect our kids."

Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Del. Betsy Carr is photographed in front of William Fox Elementary School on Tuesday, April 11, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia.

Missed inspections, repeat fire code violations

State law mandates annual inspections of public buildings like schools — as does the Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code. But a 2021 city audit, as well as fire inspection records VPM News analyzed, show that schools often went years without an inspection — although all schools were inspected in 2022.

VPM News compiled summaries of fire code violations for all Richmond public schools. Key findings from the monthslong investigation are below:

  • RFD failed to conduct annual fire inspections at each school, in violation of state law. Every Richmond school was missing at least one required inspection between 2015 and 2022. Records indicate Albert Hill and Boushall middle schools were inspected only two of those years.
  • 19 Richmond schools were missing four or more years’ worth of annual fire inspection records between 2015 and 2022. That includes four preschools, two elementary schools, five middle schools, four high schools and four specialty schools.
  • Only one-third of the district’s schools (16) have documented fire inspections from 2019. About half of schools (26) lack a documented inspection for 2018, and 19 schools don’t have one for 2017.
  • Violations related to electrical hazards, unlit emergency exits and problems with fire extinguishers were among the most commonly cited — with over 100 violations across the district for each category between 2015 and 2022.
  • Over three-fifths of noted fire code violations from 2015 through 2022 have no record of a completed follow-up inspection by the Richmond Fire Department.
  • There were numerous instances of repeat violations year-over-year. Many repeat violations were related to missing alarm tests to show that fire alarms were in working order.

In a statement, Carr told VPM News that the statistics are unacceptable: “I'll say again — every school must have an up-to-date inspection and, if the inspection finds any deficiencies, those must be remedied in a most expeditious manner. Our children must be in safe school buildings, period.”

One common fire violation over the last eight years was missing documentation of schools’ annual alarm tests.

After the Richmond City School Board voted to close Clark Springs Elementary in 2013, the school was cited by the fire department for missing documentation of a working fire alarm system for three consecutive years: 2014, 2015 and 2016.

The former elementary has been used since its 2013 closure as a flex space for professional development and training, as well as swing space for classrooms. Elkhart Middle students used the building in 2015, one of the years with missing fire alarm documentation. (Fox Elementary moved into the space in May 2022; the building was cleared of all fire code violations days before classes started.)

A 2014 inspection at Swansboro Elementary on Richmond’s Southside noted the last fire alarm inspection report on record there was from January 2010. The school received the same fire code violation — failure to provide proof of the fire alarm test — for the next four consecutive years: 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Although a 2019 inspection found no violations, the school was cited for the missing alarm test paperwork again in 2020. There’s no record that the missing paperwork was ever located, though 2022 inspections didn’t note the issue.

Twenty-eight other schools in the district were cited in 2020 for missing annual fire alarm inspection paperwork. After these and other violations went unresolved for nearly a year, Deputy Fire Marshal William Spindle characterized the ongoing issues as “extreme neglect” in a 2021 email sent to school district officials, as first reported by CBS 6.

Shaban Athuman
VPM News
The Rev. Robin Mines takes a moment to think about her time attending Swansboro Elementary School on Friday, April 14, 2023 in Richmond. Mines is also president of the Swansboro West Civic Association.

“For the safety of our kids, we have got to do better,” said the Rev. Robin Mines, president of the Swansboro West Civic Association and a Swansboro Elementary alumna.

Prior to the Fox fire, Mines said she had no idea fire alarms were an issue in the school district: “Here we are as a community thinking that our school system is on top of these things and that they're being taken care of. But after that Fox elementary fire, I think it opened the eyes of many citizens to realize that there's a lot of work to be done.”

The repeat violations are also concerning to Randy Minor, vice president of the Swansboro Civic Association.

“It’s definitely a red flag,” Minor said. “Having that type of track record, it makes you wonder, when will that happen again? But I guess you’ve got to look at it like this: The effort to make the change … that’s the first step.”

Darryl Arrington, a Fairfield Court Elementary parent, used to work as a custodian at Broad Rock Elementary. He said alarm issues there were often the result of a bad battery or a staff member opening a door and forgetting to put in a code.

A fire alarm in trouble mode at Broad Rock was identified on Sept. 3, 2021. According to RPS maintenance records, Richmond Alarm Co. was contacted to make repairs the same day. However, the issue wasn’t marked as fixed until Feb. 8, 2022 — five months later.

Arrington said 2021 problems with the Broad Rock alarm were traced to old wiring.

“It was something they were supposed to take out when they took out the old panel, and they never did,” Arrington said. “When they fixed that, we didn’t have a problem.”

Fifth District City Councilmember Stephanie Lynch told VPM News she was disappointed but not necessarily surprised by the violations. The Central Richmond representative said they’re likely indicative of systemic issues within Richmond Public Schools.

“You don’t see that type of trend without there being some underlying issue,” said Lynch.

Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Darryl Arrington, a Fairfield Court Elementary parent, as seen on Feb. 26, 2023 in Richmond. Arrington used to work as a custodian at Broad Rock Elementary. He said alarm issues there were often the result of a bad battery or a staff member opening a door and forgetting to put in a code.

Follow-up inspections: incomplete and inconsistent

When fire code violations were noted, follow-up inspections were often not completed by the fire department. For about three-fifths of violations at schools from 2015–2022, there is no notation that identified issues were resolved.

Often, follow-up inspections found little changed, even months later.

A 2014 inspection at Lucille Brown Middle found numerous issues, including multiple missing ceiling tiles, a broken exit sign, combustible material stored in the mechanical room and a library exit blocked by carts and boxes. The inspector instructed the school to fix those issues in 28 days.

At an inspection six months later, the same issues were found — including the blocked exit.

Gregory Harrington, a principal fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association, told VPM News that ensuring clear exits is one of the most important measures for school fire safety.

“There's a requirement that all of that building’s … exits — the ways out of the building — are unlocked and available for use by all occupants at any time,” Harrington said. “School staff should be checking their exits every day before the school opens.”

While the fire department’s rate of follow-up in 2022 showed improvement, it still took months for issues to be resolved at some schools. 2022 inspections at Armstrong, George Wythe and Huguenot high schools, as well as Franklin Military Academy, found numerous issues that remained unresolved at follow-up inspections.

RFD officials noted issues at each of these schools in August 2022 that were still present during follow-ups in either September or October. At Armstrong, Huguenot and George Wythe, respective issues weren’t marked as resolved until November, December and January 2023. (The January 2023 inspection record from George Wythe High was included in RFD’s response to a request for 2022 records. It is the only 2023 inspection record VPM News received.)

Fire Capt. William Spindle emailed RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras last November informing him that all prior fire code violations up until that point had been resolved, though re-inspections took place at Armstrong, Huguenot and George Wythe following the email.

Among the records the fire department provided to VPM News, there's no record showing fire inspection issues identified in 2022 at Franklin Military Academy or Woodville Elementary were corrected.

In March 2023, Kamras told VPM News all fire code violations in the district had been addressed. “The fire department has verified we have zero fire code violations," Kamras said.

Fire code violations by school type

A 2021 city audit of RFD protocol recommended that the department update its policy to ensure required annual school inspections are completed. The audit also recommended fire officials implement a schedule for conducting inspections and re-inspections. VPM News obtained a copy of the department’s policy, which was updated in July 2022.

The 2022 update added a section with recommended ranges for when fire violations should be addressed, based on their category. Violations related to fire protection systems, such as alarms and sprinklers, are considered the most pressing and labeled a “5 days situation.” The fire department recommends nonfunctioning exit signs be addressed in 5-15 days and electrical hazards be addressed in 5-20 days.

Richmond Fire Department officials told VPM News these ranges will guide the “correct by date” that fire inspectors use when issuing violations. However, the new policy updates do not specify when officials should conduct a re-inspection following a violation.

In written responses to questions, fire officials told VPM News they try to do re-inspections within 30 days of the initial inspection. However, they don’t hold inspectors to a firm 30-day window due to “human variables and potential unforeseen complications such as sick leave or fire emergencies.”

Huguenot High and Franklin Military Academy were each cited for having unlit exit signs throughout the buildings in August 2022 inspections. While the new fire department policy recommends those issues be fixed within 15 days, the issues took months to resolve at Huguenot and were not marked as resolved during an October follow-up at Franklin.

Harrington said this type of repair should not take long to fix.

“If an inspector sees that there's a burned-out exit sign, that should be a relatively quick fix,” he said. “It should be like 20 bucks on a light bulb, or something like that, to repair that exit sign.”

The findings of a city audit published in July 2021 confirm the spotty fire inspection record in the years just before the COVID-19 pandemic began: About half of the district’s schools were missing a fiscal year 2019 inspection, and some schools were missing years’ worth of inspections.

And while the vast majority of schools had a fiscal 2020 inspection, many identified violations did not get re-inspected within the year.

“Schools that are not inspected along with unaddressed violations could threaten the life safety of staff and students," the audit stated. “If these risks are not mitigated it could result in damage to property or more seriously, injury or loss of life of staff and students.”

The main accountability mechanism the fire department has to force building owners to fix violations is court action, but fire officials didn’t take RPS to court at all from 2016–2020, according to a public records request. And a city spokesperson confirmed no court action has been taken against schools more recently.

Under state law, any violations of the Fire Prevention Code are considered misdemeanors — and come with fines and potential jail time. In the event violations aren’t complied with within the time specified, the fire code also states: “the fire official shall request the legal counsel of the local governing body to institute the appropriate legal proceedings to restrain, correct, or abate such alleged violation.”

The fire inspection records VPM News obtained do show a few instances of legal threats over the years. However, a spokesperson for the city couldn’t say how common these legal threats have been or if they’ve been effective at getting violations addressed.

For example, a July 1, 2016, fax sheet from a fire inspector to the then-principal at Overby-Sheppard Elementary stated: “Your personnel (custodians) MUST be removed immediately from the boiler room…if not in compliance on July 15, 2016 a summons will be issued to you to appear in court.”

The school received the same code violation in 2014 and 2016; a 2015 fire inspection showed no violations. Richmond City didn’t respond to questions about why court action wasn’t filed in this instance.

Commonwealth’s role in fire inspections

In the event schools aren’t inspected annually by city fire officials, the State Fire Marshal’s Office is required to conduct the annual inspections — as noted by the audit. But a spokesperson for the state fire marshal couldn’t confirm whether city officials had requested school inspection help since 2015.

“The State Fire Marshal's Office handles any requests from local fire marshals on a case-by-case basis and cannot confirm if the Richmond Fire Department - Fire Marshal's Office has ever requested assistance from the State Fire Marshal's Office between the time period of 2015-2023,” Will Merritt wrote in an email to VPM News.

VPM News was denied an interview with the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Merritt wrote via email that “the State Fire Marshal’s Office does not have primary jurisdiction within the City of Richmond because a local fire official has been appointed with the responsibility to enforce the Statewide Fire Prevention Code.

“... [I]t would be improper for the State Fire Marshal's Office to hypothesize,” Merritt wrote, “regarding who the responsible party is for addressing violations.”

Fourth District Councilmember Kristen Nye told VPM News she’s planning to bring up the topic of fire safety at upcoming City Council meetings, pointing to the 2022 fires at Fox and a school bus depot.

“In light of the recent fires that we've seen within the school system … we might need to provide another layer of oversight,” Nye, who represents Southwest Richmond, said. “Whether that's the city or whether that's the school system. Just to make sure that when there's citations about certain things, that they are followed through on and that the issues are resolved.”

What’s changing?

Both Richmond's school district and its fire department insist they are doubling down and working together more closely to ensure city schools don’t go overlooked and violations don’t go unaddressed. And 2022 fire inspection records suggest that the agencies are taking steps to make changes with more frequent follow-up inspections.

Richmond Public Schools declined to make members of the school facilities team available for an interview with VPM News for this series. District spokesperson Lorena Arias answered some of VPM News’ questions about the fire violations, but couldn’t speak to school-specific queries.

She said the district has added six new facilities staff members — four custodial supervisors and two facility specialists — but did not specify when they were hired. According to Arias, the custodial supervisors will be on site for all fire inspections going forward, so they can gather and communicate information about what’s needed.

Meanwhile, facility specialists will be responsible for tracking and managing fire inspections and repairs — and even making some of the repairs themselves.

Arias also said that, historically, there just wasn’t a good system in place to keep track of fire inspection reports, violations and all of the associated paperwork — including copies of fire alarm tests conducted by third-party companies.

In the past, “It was the principal's role to make sure that whatever was on that inspection form was dealt with,” Arias said, but that responsibility now falls to the additional staff members.

The city of Richmond did not make fire officials available for an interview with VPM News for this story, either. Richmond Fire responded to most questions via email through city spokesperson Petula Burks.

In written responses to questions from VPM News, city fire officials said they’d been unaware of issues with inconsistent school inspections and follow-ups until the 2021 city audit — and said the department hadn’t made changes earlier due to turnover within the office.

In an interview with CBS 6 last fall, Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter attributed previous failures in the department’s follow-ups to violations to “critical” staffing shortages. This spring, fire officials told VPM News city fire inspectors are responsible for inspecting over 10,000 properties.

RFD said in written responses provided March 17 it had been approved to hire five new fire inspectors — three of whom are already in place. The department has submitted a grant application for an additional five inspectors. They’ve also transferred two fire lieutenants to add capacity in the division.

The department also updated its policy in 2022 to require annual inspections for all schools, because they’re considered “high risk” for fires, as recommended by the city’s audit. The annual requirement to inspect schools was already state law.

Click here for a summary of Richmond Public Schools' fire code violations for 2015–2022

Click here for 'Mind-blowing' pattern of faulty fire alarms at Richmond schools

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