WARWICK, RI — February fire drills were run using the public address systems at Norwood and Holliman Elementary Schools after fire alarms at each building broke, according to school officials, but some question whether those drills were effective given that Norwood teachers were not aware the alarms were broken.
“The principal at Holliman (Principal Joseph Coffey) did tell them that,” said Lynn Dambruch, director of elementary education at Warwick Public Schools. Norwood Principal John Gannon did not inform teachers that the system was broken, Dambruch said.
Superintendent Phil Thornton said the fire drills would’ve been a good opportunity to alert the community to the damaged fire alarm systems. He said all Warwick School principals have been updated on communication policies following recent suggestions by Warwick School Committee member David Testa.
PA-system fire drills will also be held this month, Thornton said.
Stephanie Roberts Shelton, mother of an 8-year-old and 10-year-old at Norwood Elementary, a former Norwood PTA president and the current PTA president elect, learned of the broken alarms via text message from another parent last Tuesday.
“I was not very happy. I didn’t sleep well,” that night, Roberts Shelton said.
The next day, she said she spoke with Gannon, who confirmed the alarms were broken, then the State Fire Marshal, and Warwick Fire Alarm Superintendent Mike Moan, who told her that janitors were on fire watch, and that teachers could report a fire via walkie-talkie.
Roberts Shelton said there are no walkie-talkies at Norwood School. She was also skeptical that a fire drill could be effective when the teachers in the school were unaware that the fire alarm would not sound during a fire. She said there is a big difference between a blaring alarm that will grab a student’s attention, that they’ve learned to equate with a fire, versus an announcement over the PA system from a school principal students listen to every day.
“They did not have a set protocol of how to have a fire alarm in that situation,” Roberts Shelton said.
Councilman Jeremy Rix agreed the February PA system fire drills should have included a notice that the regular fire alarm will not sound during the outage.
“While we are waiting for the fire alarm systems at Norwood and Holliman to be repaired, it is especially important to conduct fire drills that simulate the announcement of a fire without the usual alarm, so that we know for a certainty that the students, teachers, and staff are prepared,” Rix added.
Councilman Ed Ladouceur said the news that fire drills were held in the buildings is contrary to what Thornton told him during the meeting between him, Rix, Schools Director of Buildings and Grounds Steven Gothberg, and Warwick Fire Marshal Peter Marietti, Warwick Fire Alarm Superintendent Mike Moan and Firefighter Mike Carreiro last week where they agreed to station firefighters at the two schools during the first shift fire watch.
Ladouceur said Thornton and Gothberg had told him and Rix that there had been no fire drills at the schools since the alarms broke.
Thornton denied telling the councillors that.
Ladouceur insisted Thornton said fire drills had not been conducted at the schools during the meeting. He said the information that fire alarms did take place speaks to the administration’s faulty grasp on the facts at the time the news broke to the public. “I would say they didn’t know what was going on,” at the time, Ladouceur said.
“At the meeting on Thursday March 23, the Superintendent told Councilman Ladouceur, the Fire Marshal, and I that there were no fire drills in either school after the Feb. 24 discovery that the systems were down. I remember that clearly, especially because Councilman Ladouceur and I followed up with questions on why fire drills had not been conducted since Feb. 24.”
Rhode Island’s Fire Safety Code requires a fire watch be established whenever a fire alarm system is out of order for longer than four hours in a 24 hour period. It also requires fire watch personnel be trained in fire prevention techniques, fire department notification, evacuation procedures and fire extinguisher operation.
Warwick Assistant Fire Chief James Kenney said all the janitors tasked with fire watch duties were instructed in what to look for, who to notify and how to respond in the event of a fire.
“They understand the job and they had sign-in sheets to confirm they knew what they were doing,” said Kenney. “They were following everything that they were supposed to do to the best of our knowledge.”
Kenney declined to comment when asked whether WFD officials were concerned that teachers at Norwood were not aware the school’s fire alarms were not working.
Kenney said fire watches have often been established in public buildings throughout the city as fire alarm systems break down over the years.
“They do break,” Kenney said.
Kenney said he and Warwick Fire Department officials would not have allowed unsafe conditions at the schools to go unchecked.
“We were confident that these buildings could be occupied,” Kenney said.
Roberts Shelton said officials should have told teachers and parents about the broken alarms. She said she was concerned that School Committee Vice Chairman Eugene Nadeau, whose district is home to Holliman and Norwood schools, said he was confident Warwick School officials had good reason to withhold the information.
“It could be alarming to parents and students when there was no reason to be that way,” Nadeau said Monday.
“There is never a good reason to not to tell parents about their children’s safety,” Roberts Shelton said.Fire Drill Reports
“Obstructed” indicates a drill in which an exit path was not used to illustrate the use of an alternate path around an obstruction out of the building during a drill.