WARWICK, RI — Warwick Schools Superintendent Phil Thornton says fire alarm systems at Norwood and Holliman elementary schools are on track to be repaired April 7, while City Councillors and one School Committee member seek details on why they and the community were not immediately informed the alerts had broken until a month later, on March 23.
School Committee Chair Bethany Furtado, Fire Chief James McLaughlin, Mayor Scott Avedisian, the teachers at Holliman, the Fire Marshal and Fire Alarm Superintendent were notified of the broken alarms. The information was not shared with anyone else until parents began calling officials last Thursday morning.
Furtado said Thornton told her about the fire alarms, but she was dealing with a family emergency at the time and didn’t inquire further.
“As to why others were not notified I can not answer that,” Furtado said.
“I was not happy at all,” said School Committee member David Testa, “And I had to find out from a parent. That isn’t how this is supposed to work.”
But, he said, he spoke with Superintendent Phil Thornton about the oversight, which Thornton has characterized as a breakdown in communication that he takes responsibility for, and made suggestions to re-organize the “communications trail” for communicating with the School Committee that he’s confident will prevent a similar future oversight.
Testa declined to detail what changes he suggested. “No, I don’t want to get into that,” he said.
Testa pointed to Thornton’s recent same-day notification of the community about a septic system backup at Warwick Veterans Jr. High as proof that the proper steps had been taken to make sure the community is apprised of important school events. “We found out about that the day it happened,” Testa said.
School Committee Vice Chair Eugene Nadeau said he is unconcerned about the delay in informing the entire community of the broken alarms. He said he is confident officials who knew had good reason to keep the information from the rest of the community.
“It could be alarming to parents and students when there was no reason to be that way,” Nadeau said.
School Committee member Karen Bachus did not agree.
“They put more than 375 souls at risk by not alerting everybody,” Bachus said, at Norwood, where neither teachers nor students were notified.
Councilman Ed Ladouceur, who worked with Councilman Jeremy Rix, school and fire officials to put Warwick firefighters on watch at the schools (Rix said the firefighters will not accrue overtime) when news broke to the general public last week, also said teachers’ and students’ ignorance of the situation had put them in harm’s way.
“With no alarm system, nobody would’ve been notified until it was too late,” Ladouceur said.
Bachus said she has not learned any of the details about why Thornton did not notify the entire community about the fire alarms’ breakdown.
But, she said, it’s on the agenda for the April 4 School Committee meeting. “I made sure of that,” she said.
Thornton announced Monday afternoon that fire alarm design/engineering firm Jensen Hughs will restore the fire alarm system April 7 with new fire alarm panels built for Norwood and Holliman schools. The new panels will cost between $6,000 – $8,000.
Over the summer, a new fire alarm system will be designed for each of the schools, costing $33,000 total. Using that design, the fire alarm systems at each of the schools will be replaced, which is estimated to cost $100,000 – $125,000.
In the 2015 Warwick School District Facilities Analysis of the district’s schools prepared by architectural and engineering firm SMMA on June 3, 2015, the total cost estimate for replacing all the schools’ fire alarms was $1,523,110.
According to the 2012-2013 Capital Improvements Program and Budget, bonds for fire code improvements for the schools were sought in Fiscal Year 2012-2013 for $3,741,373, in Fiscal Year 2013-2014 for $3,554,360, and in 2014-2015 for $3,601,016.
That money was spent on installing new windows in the schools so students and teachers could easily get out of them during a fire, and also to reconstruct exits from the schools so the students and teachers were not required to re-enter a burning building once they had entered school stairwells to escape, said School Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci. Before those changes, he said, students who got to the bottom of school stairwells had to go back into the building during a fire to exit the schools.
Ferrucci said the decision was made to use the funds on that, not on upgrading fire alarms, because the fire alarms, though aging, were functioning and passing inspections at the time. The fire exit upgrades were an existing fire code violation.
“It was a life safety issue,” Ferrucci said.
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