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Richmond schools to continue work with alarm-testing company

Two people sit at separate desks with a projector screen in between them. Their tables are covered in cloths that read "RPS RICHMOND PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras and School Board Member Jonathan Young listen during a school board meeting on Monday, May 1, 2023 at Thomas Jefferson High School.

Johnson Controls was highlighted in a VPM News investigation following the William Fox Elementary School fire in 2022.

Richmond Public Schools plans to keep working with Johnson Controls, a company it hired to test fire alarm systems, according to a division spokesperson. The company was highlighted in a VPM News investigation following the William Fox Elementary School fire in 2022.

RPS contracted Richmond Alarm Company to monitor and annually test schools’ alarm systems from 2014 until 2022, when the company was purchased by multinational conglomerate Johnson Controls.

A VPM News investigation found RPS did not have records verifying Richmond Alarm Co. conducted those tests. RPS turned up only three alarm tests in response to a public records request for all such tests conducted between 2016 and 2020 — none of which were conducted by Richmond Alarm Co. District officials say the tests may have been conducted, but no documentation was kept.

“It may have been done, I just don't have the documentation to prove that,” district spokesperson Lorena Arias previously told VPM News.

Alarm issues persisted at numerous schools after Johnson Controls acquired the company in January 2022, such as Carver Elementary. Carver administrative assistant Marleeta Thompson filed a work order on Jan. 20 of that year about an alarm continuously beeping in the office. On Jan. 25, she filed another: “Technician was just here, and 10 minutes after leaving the sound is on again. Urgent!”

Nearly a month later, an RPS official followed up about the issue, and Johnson Controls staff said the part needed remained on backorder.

Faults with alarm systems at schools throughout the district spurred RPS to hire a second company, Mitchell Wade Associates, to conduct additional testing and repair work in 2022, costing more than $100,000.

Despite that, Arias told VPM News this week that the district does “not anticipate needing to re-examine our contract terms with Johnson Controls.”

Fire Chief Melvin Carter recently told City Council that all Richmond public schools have been cleared of fire code violations.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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