'Mind-blowing' pattern of faulty fire alarms at Richmond schools
“It may have been done, I just don't have the documentation to prove that.”
Unchecked: 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.
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.
For Lakita Patterson, the mother of a first grader at Fairfield Court Elementary in Richmond’s East End, the 2022 fire at William F. Fox Elementary made her think “that my kid’s school could be next because of the age and the condition in which it’s in.”
She lives near Fairfield Court Elementary and said she saw fire officials make multiple trips there — especially over the summer — in the past couple of years, because the school’s alarm kept going off. She said someone who’d done research on the issue told her the alarm system was old and needed to be rewired.
Lakita Patterson told VPM News she didn’t realize issues with the school’s alarm had been ongoing for years.
An October 2018 fire inspection noted a violation for missing fire alarm testing paperwork at Fairfield Court — stating that the last time the alarm had been tested was in 2016, two years prior.
The fire inspector gave the school a month to resolve the issue. But there’s no documentation to show whether that ever happened, because there are no records of a 2019 fire inspection report for Fairfield Court.
In 2020, the school was cited by the Richmond Fire Department for multiple alarm-related violations in both an inspection and a follow-up one month later — including a citation for missing records of a recent fire alarm test.
On March 5, 2020, a fire inspector initially gave the school 11 days — until March 16 — to fix the violations. When the same inspector came back about six weeks later on April 13 and saw the violations hadn’t been addressed, he gave the school until mid-July to resolve them.
There’s no notation that the issues were addressed until indirectly in 2022, when a September inspection conducted by a different assistant fire marshal found no violations at Fairfield Court.
Lakita Patterson said the pattern was troubling and that the school district and fire department need to ensure all of the necessary inspections are done regularly — especially at older schools like Fairfield Court Elementary.
She doesn’t want the school to have to close even temporarily over problems like fire alarms. It was hard enough on her kids when schools closed for the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Patterson; she had to quit her job to oversee virtual learning.
“They need to be in the building,” Lakita Patterson said. “We just need them to come into an environment where they can focus and they can learn.”
Through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, VPM News received logs of schools’ maintenance requests and emails between Richmond Public Schools and Richmond Alarm Co. (now owned by Johnson Controls International) detailing some of those fire alarm repair problems.
One log of maintenance requests contains a September 2021 request from Fairfield Court staff for repairs due to a “trouble shooting” error with an audible alarm, which notes the problem also occurred in 2020. The log states the school district reached out to Richmond Alarm Co. on Sept. 9, 2021.
Principal Angela Wright submitted a separate work order for a constantly-beeping fire alarm on Oct. 21, 2021. “We are unable to silence it,” Wright wrote. RPS structural foreman Robert Trayer emailed Richmond Alarm’s Sharon Mooberry and Jeff Patterson (no relation to Lakita Patterson) the same day to arrange repairs.
Trayer emailed Richmond Alarm staff on Nov. 8, 2021, asking if someone could go to Fairfield Court that day, stating that the fire alarm “has gone off 3 times this morning.”
Mooberry responded later that day with some findings; the company’s technician said some detectors “are very old and might need replacing,” adding that the main control panel was a proprietary one made by Siemens. “We are not able to access parts for this system,” Mooberry wrote, “unless you go with replacing.” A Siemens staff member wrote that it was “all back up and running” the following day, Nov. 9.
On Dec. 29, 2021, Patricia Morse with Richmond Alarm emailed RPS facilities director Robert Hathaway about Fairfield Court, writing, “this fire system stopped communicating on December 19th.”
Though the district’s maintenance log shows the “trouble shooting” error was resolved on Jan. 13, 2022, Hathaway created another work order to address a Fairfield Court fire alarm panel “constantly beeping in office” on Jan. 19, 2022.
District staff reached out to Richmond Alarm/Johnson Controls about the issue via email two days later on Jan. 21, 2022. Jeff Patterson replied that same morning, writing that the newly acquired company would “get the work done asap.”
On Feb. 27, 2022, Patterson wrote that “the system is communicating but looks to have a phone line issue. I would advise to have the phone company come out to check the lines.”
We just need them to come into an environment where they can focus and they can learn.
Virginia’s Statewide Fire Prevention Code — which follows National Fire Protection Association standards — requires the annual testing of fire alarm systems. While these alarm inspections are the responsibility of building owners (in this case, Richmond Public Schools), third-party vendors are typically hired to complete the tests.
However, in the eight years’ worth of fire inspection records VPM News analyzed from 2015 through 2022, numerous Richmond public schools were cited by the fire department for missing documentation of up-to-date alarm inspections — sometimes several years in a row.
George W. Carver Elementary, on West Leigh Street, was cited in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2020 for not having a current fire alarm inspection report. (There’s no record of a 2019 fire inspection report for Carver.)
Emails as well as fire inspection records for other schools also showed alarms repeatedly weren’t in working order.
Elizabeth D. Redd Elementary, in Richmond’s Southside, was cited for missing alarm inspection records in 2017. The next available record of an inspection by the fire department — two years later in 2019 — shows the “trouble” signal was activated on a fire alarm panel in the main office. That same “trouble” signal was active when the school was inspected in 2020, too.
A “trouble” mode alarm “means there is an issue or fault with the fire alarm system,” according to the National Fire Protection Association. That means it may not work when you need it to — especially during a fire.
Inspections at Barack Obama Elementary, on Richmond’s Northside, in 2018 and 2019 found the fire alarm system was not working. Both inspections noted: “this has to immediately be repaired and made functioning. The building owner shall be responsible for maintaining the fire and life safety systems in an operable condition at ALL times.”
The 2019 Barack Obama inspection notes the violation was corrected on the re-inspection date, but it's not clear when that re-inspection occurred.
Both Barack Obama and Elizabeth D. Redd had malfunctioning alarms again in early 2022 — along with numerous others across the district, as CBS 6 first reported.
Staff at Barack Obama submitted a work order to address an error code in the fire alarm panel on Nov. 17, 2021 — and a second work order for the same issue on Jan. 19, 2022. A work order dated Jan. 19, 2022, for alarm repairs at Elizabeth Redd stated: “FYI Fire Chief is calling.”
‘It’s not safe for the kids’
Some parents and family members of Richmond Public Schools students told VPM News that they’d rather schools temporarily close than operate under unsafe conditions.
“It's not safe for the kids or the workers,” said Keandra Epps, the grandmother of a 6-year-old kindergartener at Fairfield Court. “They should get on top of their issues. If not, then close ’em down.”
Another parent echoed Epps’s concerns.
“I don’t want to wake up someday and the school’s on fire or anybody’s kids get hurt,” said Mina Brooks, whose 6-year-old son also attends Fairfield Court.
Under Virginia law, fire prevention code violations are considered misdemeanors — and come with fines and potential jail time. Court intervention to force the hand of building owners to address violations is the main accountability mechanism the fire department has at its disposal. According to the state fire code, court intervention is required for violations that “are not complied with within the time specified.”
I don’t want to wake up someday and the school’s on fire or anybody’s kids get hurt.
But Richmond Fire Department officials haven’t taken Richmond Public Schools to court for at least the last several years — from 2016 through 2020, according to the city’s response to a public records request. City spokesperson Petula Burks told VPM News that litigation hadn’t occurred from 2020 through March 2023, the last time we asked, either.
VPM News was not granted an on-the-record interview with city fire officials, though Richmond Fire Department officials responded to most questions via email through Burks.
They did not, however, answer questions about why court intervention wasn’t pursued against RPS in the case of repeat fire code violations — and for how long the accountability mechanism has been avoided.
When asked what the fire department was doing differently now to hold the school district accountable, officials responded via Burks: “We do not foresee a need to imagine such a hypothetical situation as the communication breakdowns have been addressed and we are moving forward to ensure both safety and compliance through partnership and commitments between RFD and RPS.”
Gregory Harrington is a principal fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association, which maintains the fire safety code that Virginia follows. Harrington told VPM News that in his experience, rather than vacating a school it’s more likely fire officials would come to some sort of alternative arrangement while violations are corrected.
That alternative approach might include a fire watch, during which he said staff from the fire department or another organization would typically provide trained personnel to be on standby in the building. Fire watch staff are supposed to remain there until the deficiencies are corrected and be on the lookout for signs of smoke or fire.
“Generally, it's been my experience that fire officials aren't looking to be punitive. They're looking to ensure safety for the public,” Harrington said. “So, I think they're more interested in getting the deficiencies corrected than fining building owners for deficiencies.”
We do not foresee a need to imagine such a hypothetical situation...
After a 2015 inspection at John B. Cary Elementary School in the Carillon neighborhood found the school was missing paperwork to show its fire alarm was in working order, the fire department ordered the school to staff its own fire watch. It’s not clear when the fire watch at Cary started or ended.
It’s also unclear what, if any, training was provided to those on 24/7 watch who were “in effect the fire alarm system,” according to RFD’s order. The 2015 paperwork notes that fire watch staffing should be that person’s sole responsibility, and they are “required to walk through the building on a continuous cycle covering all areas on all floors from the uppermost floor down to the lowest level checking all spaces for any sign of smoke or fire.”
The order also states an assistant fire marshal would stop by to verify the status of the fire watch on a daily basis. In the physical file folder for Cary fire violations that VPM News went through, there was no additional documentation to show whether this ever happened.
'This site needs to be on fire watch'
City fire officials said it was not an “established routine” to require a fire watch just because of missing alarm inspection paperwork. However, fire officials also said they’ve since added that specific violation to a list of items to “scrutinize closer to ensure compliance.”
There are few references to fire watches in the years’ worth of inspection records and emails VPM News analyzed. RFD officials said they couldn’t say how many fire watches were ordered over the past several years, because of “insufficient data” from an antiquated filing system they’ve since taken steps to address.
Emails VPM News received from Richmond Public Schools show at least two more recent instances of ordered fire watches — this time from the contracted alarm company.
On Jan. 25, 2022, Richmond Alarm Co. employee Sharon Mooberry wrote to RPS’ Robert Trayer about Boushall Middle following a work order request about the fire alarm continuing to make noise: “This system requires a programmer which is with one of the other technicians … but he will not get to this one today; I have it scheduled for tomorrow. This communicator has been powered down to stop the beeping. This site needs to be on fire watch.”
Mooberry also called for a fire watch at Carver Elementary on Jan. 25. That same day Marleeta Thompson, Carver Elementary’s administrative office assistant, filled out a second work order within a few days for alarm work at the school, writing that the alarm sound continued to go off: “Technician was just here, and 10 minutes after leaving the sound is on again. Urgent!”
In a separate email to Trayer, Mooberry wrote: “I was able to get the technician over with the programmer. However … he is not able to get into programming, there is a lock out code. We will need to replace the annunciator, so this will be a return trip and I will be ordering the part. The technician did power down to stop the buzzing, since it isn’t working anyway. You will need to go on fire watch at this location. I will let you know as soon as I have the part and get it scheduled.”
Trayer followed up with Richmond Alarm/Johnson Controls about the status of Carver’s alarm repairs one month later on Feb. 23, 2022. Jeff Patterson responded that day, writing that a needed part was on backorder: “It’s still showing as backordered without a date of replenishment. All other substitute parts are unavailable as well.”
There’s no further email communication about the status of these schools’ alarms in the records VPM News obtained and reviewed, but both Boushall and Carver were cleared of all fire code violations in October 2022 inspections by the Richmond Fire Department.
Annual alarm test requirements
In 2020, fire officials cited 29 Richmond public schools — over half within the district — for failure to provide documentation of required annual fire alarm inspections. And again: Virginia’s Fire Prevention Code, which follows NFPA standards, requires annual alarm tests. While conducting those tests are ultimately the school district’s responsibility, the testing and documentation is typically completed by contractors.
“I think one of the most important things for fire protection systems and life safety systems, in general, is the proper inspection, testing and maintenance of those systems,” said Shawn Mahoney, a technical services fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association. “You know, you install it on day one, everything is good … but you need to make sure you're continuously testing it to make sure everything's working properly.”
Richmond Public Schools has held contracts with at least two companies — Richmond Alarm Co. (later Johnson Controls) and Mitchell Wade Associates Inc. — for alarm inspections and repairs since 2014. However, the various contracts don’t specify which schools’ alarms the companies were responsible for inspecting and repairing. And documentation provided to VPM News by RFD and RPS about the companies’ work over the last several years is scant.
As part of a broader September 2014–August 2015 contract for "Monthly monitoring” of “Security Systems,” “Fire Alarm Systems,” “Elevator Call Boxes” and “Maintenance & Inspection costs for Security Systems," RPS and Richmond Alarm Co. agreed to “Monthly Monitoring of Fire Alarm Systems at 56 sites” for a monthly rate of $1,625.45 based on consistent monitoring of all 56 sites — with a $27.55 fee per site if fewer than 56 sites were monitored.
If Richmond Alarm Co. conducted all of the work laid out in the contract between September 2014 and October 2015, RPS would have paid the company about $18,000 for alarm monitoring alone. Based on public records VPM News reviewed, this contract was renewed each year from 2015 through 2020. Johnson Controls announced the acquisition of Richmond Alarm Co. in mid-2021, which took effect in early 2022.
The state of Virginia negotiated a new contract with Johnson Controls on behalf of all public agencies including RPS through the end of 2021; it was renewed through 2022. This contract changes the pricing structure to a per-hour rate ranging from $80 per hour to $240 per hour for different services.
Meanwhile, a 2014–2015 contract with Mitchell Wade Associates quoted a range of per-school prices for alarm testing, inspection, maintenance and repair — ranging from $50 to $590. This contract was renewed annually through July 2020.
According to RPS spokesperson Lorena Arias, it was a mid-2020 procurement decision to move forward solely with Richmond Alarm Co. for all alarm-related work. However, Arias later told VPM News that the district again contracted with Mitchell Wade Associates in 2022 “by way of emergency justification to replace failed fire alarm panels.”
A June 2022 purchase order from Mitchell Wade Associates shows RPS approved payment of $102,181.05 for alarm work at over half of the district’s schools — including testing and monitoring for alarms at 11 schools.
On Feb. 22, 2022, Johnson Controls quoted RPS over $25,000 to troubleshoot alarm deficiencies at 14 schools — which included the cost for battery and smoke detector replacements, as well as some non-alarm related work. That followed separate 2021 and 2022 quotes to address alarm issues at a number of other schools.
Along with the Feb. 22 quote, Andre Goodman with Johnson Controls wrote: “Here are the remaining fire alarm quotes that I have quoted. A co-worker should have 5 more to send you that should complete ALL schools for fire alarm systems.”
VPM News submitted a public records request to RPS for all copies of fire alarm inspections conducted at all Richmond public schools between 2016 and 2020 to verify which alarms were tested, as well as when and by whom.
If every school had its alarms tested at least annually over this time period, VPM News should’ve received over 200 inspection reports. But RPS only turned up three: two for John Marshall High between 2015 and 2017, conducted by Mitchell Wade Associates, and one at Overby-Sheppard Elementary in 2018, performed by Tyco SimplexGrinnell — which merged with Johnson Controls Security Solutions in 2016.
A handful of other fire alarm tests were found in physical file folders the Richmond Fire Department keeps for school-based inspections — but the records were far from complete.
According to a January 2022 email from Robert Trayer, RPS has copies of alarm inspections for nearly all schools in 2021. Copies of numerous 2021 alarm tests are included in email records VPM News obtained from the district, but there are records of only eight school fire inspections by the Richmond Fire Department in 2021.
VPM News asked Richmond Alarm Co./Johnson Controls and Mitchell Wade Associates for their records of fire alarm inspections performed for RPS over the last several years, but the companies’ records were not provided. Neither company answered VPM News’ questions about past work with the school district.
Documentation, when available, about the contracted work was provided by Richmond Public Schools and the Richmond Fire Department via public records requests.
Richmond Public Schools did not make anyone from its facilities team available for an interview with VPM News. Spokesperson Lorena Arias told VPM News that RPS did not have records to show if fire alarm inspections — where the fire department identified missing paperwork — were ever conducted.
“It may have been done, I just don't have the documentation to prove that,” Arias told VPM News.
Outgoing Del. Jeff Bourne, a former Richmond School Board member (2013–2017), told VPM News, “It's mind-blowing that this routine level of safety precaution appears either to have not been done or the proper documentation wasn't held on to, compiled, completed. … [W]hatever the case may be, at the end of the day, you look back and you’ve got to double down on those things.”
If every school had its alarms tested at least annually over 2016–2020, VPM News should’ve received over 200 inspection reports. But RPS only turned up three.
As VPM News previously reported, RPS has added several new staff members who will now be responsible for ensuring the proper paperwork is kept and that fire code violations are addressed moving forward.
After speaking at a March 2023 City Council meeting, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras told VPM News that all district fire alarm panels have either been replaced or upgraded and are working properly. He added they’ve also installed what’s called a Knox Box at every school, which allows fire department personnel to access schools in emergencies.
The fire department has also been approved to hire five more inspectors — three of whom are already on board. And they’ve permanently transferred two lieutenants to add capacity in the division.
A 2021 city audit recommended the fire department also monitor and track reports from third-party vendors, like alarm companies. City fire officials told VPM News in written responses they are receiving these reports now and “may have received reports but not on a regular basis” in the past.
However, when asked if they knew whether routine alarm inspections had been happening despite the missing paperwork at some schools and why there’d been so many issues with the alarms, they said there was “no way of knowing.”
Fire officials also told VPM News they didn’t reach out to contracted alarm companies directly about alarm-related violations because the “ownership of this responsibility is on the facility” — Richmond Public Schools.
‘Please contact me’
VPM News requested copies of all emails between RPS facilities staff and Richmond Alarm Co. employees from April 2020 through August 2020 — the months surrounding violations for outdated alarm inspection records at over half of the district’s schools. RPS provided those emails in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
In the emails, there was no mention of annual, routine alarm tests being scheduled or completed during that time frame. Instead, the bulk of communication was focused on addressing malfunctioning alarms at multiple schools.
An email sent on April 14, 2020, included an attachment detailing malfunctioning alarms at 10 schools: Greene Elementary, George Mason Elementary, J.L. Francis Elementary, Blackwell Elementary, Woodville Elementary, Westover Hills Elementary, Lucille Brown Middle, John Marshall High, Armstrong High and Open High. Alarms showed signals including “trouble,” “fail to test,” “phone issues,” “unrestored trouble at test” and “battery test failure signal.”
It took more than a month to schedule Richmond Alarm Co. technicians to investigate all of those issues, and district staff had to follow up multiple times first.
On May 1, 2020, RPS’ structural foreman, Robert Trayer, sent an email to Jeff Patterson, Richmond Alarm Co.’s operations manager: “my Director is pushing me to get these repairs corrected. Please contact me so we can get them scheduled.” Bobby Hathaway, director of facilities at RPS, sent an email to Patterson a few minutes later on May 1 requesting a complete list of alarm-related needs.
Hathaway sent a follow-up email to Patterson on May 12, asking when he’d “have some time to dedicate to RPS to make repairs to the security system? We are anxious to get this behind us.” On May 14, one month after the issues had been identified via email, Hathaway sent a third message again requesting a timeline from Richmond Alarm Co. to resolve alarm issues.
Based on emails provided to VPM News by RPS, Patterson responded to these inquiries on May 14. “Good afternoon gentlemen! My apologies again for the delay in getting this information to you. I will get better with my communication and timeliness for y’all,” he wrote. Patterson also shared the results of investigations at four of the 10 schools identified on April 14.
Phone lines at Woodville were tested and found “to be good to go.” One of two phone lines was dead at Blackwell Elementary, which the district had to follow up on for repair. Blackwell’s fire alarm keypad had to be replaced. At John Marshall and Armstrong high schools, bad smoke detectors were identified as the root cause of alarm problems. However, Patterson said those devices were proprietary and couldn’t be replaced by Richmond Alarm Co.
On May 14, RPS’ Robert Trayer proposed dates for Richmond Alarm Co. to investigate the remaining issues the following week — and said the district would handle replacement of the smoke detectors at John Marshall and Armstrong. Trayer also noted that RPS had identified bad phone lines at Open High and notified Verizon for repairs.
There are no further emails through August 2020 about scheduling those additional repairs. VPM News does not have copies of email communication between Richmond Alarm Co. and Richmond Public Schools staff from September 2020 through August 2021, due to the scope of public records requests.
Richmond schools closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then went virtual for the remainder of spring 2020 and the entire 2020-2021 academic year. They reopened for in-person instruction in fall 2021.
But even after schools reopened, records VPM News obtained show problems with alarms — as well as difficulty scheduling repairs with Richmond Alarm Co./Johnson Controls — continued into 2022. CBS 6 first reported in May 2022 about failing alarms at multiple schools just days before the Fox Elementary fire.
2021 maintenance records provided by Richmond Public Schools and analyzed by VPM News show that it often took weeks — and sometimes months — for the contractor to address alarm issues. Work orders were submitted for alarm problems at several schools in September and November 2021, but they weren’t noted as resolved until January or February 2022.
Emails between RPS and alarm company staff provided to VPM News also illustrate how communication and alarm repair problems persisted even after Johnson Controls acquired Richmond Alarm Co. in January 2022.
On Sept. 30, 2021, Robert Trayer emailed Johnson Controls staff about an email he’d received from Richmond Community High stating that the contractors came and looked at the panel — but did not fix it. “They are saying it is still beeping. Please give me a status update.”
Trayer followed up over two weeks later, on Oct. 18, stating that the school was still having issues with the alarm panel, and asking, “What is the status of the repairs?”
Johnson Controls quoted RPS $1,744.09 to troubleshoot two smoke detectors and change two batteries at Richmond Community High on Feb. 8, 2022 — the same day the district's maintenance log shows the alarm panel was reprogrammed by Richmond Alarm Co.
On Feb. 18, 2022, RPS’ Robert Trayer emailed now–Johnson Controls staff (formerly Richmond Alarm Co.) asking why 11 smoke detectors weren’t inspected as part of an annual alarm inspection at Bellevue Elementary — and requesting a timeline to get the deficiencies corrected.
“The reason the 11 smoke detectors weren’t tested was because the panel crashed,” Ronald Talley from Johnson Controls wrote. “Once the panel is fixed we can test them.”
Talley did not clarify if — or when — the company would be sending someone out to fix the panel. (The company had previously quoted RPS $2,536 to address alarm issues at the school on Dec. 23, 2021, noting additional costs could apply based on the technician’s findings.)
According to district spokesperson Lorena Arias, RPS is still contracting with Richmond Alarm Co./Johnson Controls for alarm monitoring and testing.
Richmond Public Schools also approved a May 2022 invoice from Mitchell Wade Associates for a year’s worth of alarm monitoring and testing work at 11 schools: Mary Scott Preschool, Clark Springs Elementary, Elizabeth D. Redd Elementary, G. H. Reid Elementary, Ginter Park Elementary, J. B. Fisher Elementary, Southampton Elementary, Swansboro Elementary, George Wythe High, Open High and Richmond Alternative.
A spokesperson for Johnson Controls declined an interview request with VPM News and did not respond to a detailed list of questions. Tim Dixon, the owner of Mitchell Wade Associates, also declined to speak with VPM News about Richmond Public Schools and redirected VPM News back to RPS for questions.
Disclosure: VPM has an active contract with Johnson Controls for intrusion detection alarms, and it previously contracted with Richmond Alarm Co. for those alarms. VPM previously contracted with Tyco SimplexGrinnell — which was acquired by Johnson Controls in 2016 — for fire alarms.