Two maintenance employees with Bend-La Pine Schools say students may have been at risk because of multiple fire code violations and faulty fire system components at Summit High School. They say the school district did nothing to fix the problems.
One of the inspectors said many of the same problems exist at Sky View Middle School and potentially many other schools in the district.
The problems at Summit included blocked and muffled fire alarms, uninspected alarm components and smoke dampers that had been permanently disabled.
Bend-La Pine facilities and maintenance supervisors said that fire system testing is happening at every school in the district, and the district has hired a third-party contractor to help with testing schools over winter break.
The problems were pointed out in July when Maintenance Electrician Bruce Card submitted his annual fire alarm testing and inspection report for Summit High School to the district and the Bend fire marshal. Card said after he told his supervisors about the issues at the school, he was pulled off an inspection of Sky View and was not allowed to complete inspections of the district’s other schools.
Card believes many other schools in the district could have faulty fire alarm systems and dampers.
“I know that if I really dig into it, there will be more deficiencies throughout the district,” he said. “I just don’t know about them yet.”
Mike Tiller, Bend-La Pine’s director of facilities, and Maintenance Supervisor Dan Dummitt disputed Card’s claim that he had been pulled off any inspections.
“He’s been picking away, as far as I know,” Dummitt said.
At Summit, Card found that horn speakers had tape or cloth placed over them to muffle them, and some of the tape “looked like it had been on for a long time,” he wrote in his report.
Some alarms were covered up, one with a soccer team’s flag and another with a trophy case that was built around it.
District supervisors say the alarm behind the trophy case is visible and functional.
“These devices were never tested or inspected prior to this year,” Card wrote.
Dummitt said a district foreman had inspected “100 percent” of Summit’s fire systems “multiple times” before Card was hired last year.
Another concern Card wrote about was the school’s fire/smoke dampers, which are intended to prevent smoke or fire from traveling through ventilation ducts, and are frequently in fire walls. When a fire occurs, the dampers are meant to close.
Card said he was told by people in the district’s HVAC department that many of Summit’s dampers had been permanently propped open because their motors were broken and the district didn’t want to pay to replace them.
After testing 265 dampers at Summit, Card reported only 78 of them operated correctly. Card said he “received lots of resistance” from supervisors when he brought up replacing the dampers.
Tiller and Dummitt said they were fine with Card doing a deeper inspection into Summit.
Building Controls Technician Adam Seile, who works with HVAC systems in the district, confirmed that sometimes when students in a class complained about loud air noise in the ceiling or uncomfortable temperatures — two signs that a damper was broken and had closed — his foreman told him and other technicians to permanently open the dampers.
Card said the broken dampers could “potentially” put Summit’s students in danger.
Tiller disagreed, saying that students were “absolutely not” at risk, as students and staff would be evacuated from the building before smoke reached the air ducts, even if the dampers weren’t functioning.
Card added that when he was hired by the school district in 2017, “speed was the priority” in fire system testing, as they would try to reach all 29 schools in July. In 2017, Card said he spent only one day at Summit. This July, for his in-depth report, he spent 14 days. Card said previous inspectors didn’t test heat detectors and they only inspected fire detectors that could be reached with a small step ladder or a 10-footpole — otherwise, they were never touched.
“It kind of came off to me as the fire alarm testing stuff was more of an inconvenience for them,” he said. “They didn’t want to really put forth the effort.”
Tiller said the reason many hard-to-reach detectors haven’t been inspected is because the district’s schools have “smart” fire alarms that report problems to district officials, who can then fix the issues.
Seile and Card believe that the violations at Summit have not been fixed.
Tiller and Dummitt said the district just hired a contractor from Performance Systems Integration for roughly $50,000.
School district maintenance workers are testing alarms and dampers at Sky View and Three Rivers School, and will soon move on to Bend High School and Cascade Middle School. They expect to complete the testing by Dec.27. The contractor, along with district staff, will begin testing the fire alarm systems at Mountain View and Marshall high schools, Pacific Crest Middle School and many elementary schools Dec. 26.
The district will inspect a few other schools, including High Desert Middle School and Juniper Elementary, in early January, and La Pine’s four schools in March.
In regards to Summit’s violations, school district spokeswoman Julianne Repman said the district has ordered the parts to address the fire/smoke damper and fire alarm issues, and is waiting for them to arrive.
Bend Fire Marshal Larry Medina said although he hasn’t seen Card’s report on Summit, he is aware of the violations that were brought up and called them “highly concerning.”
He added that although Bend-La Pine is the only local, major organization or company that maintains its own fire alarms rather than hiring a third-party contractor to do it, the fire department is working with the district on compliance with fire codes.
However, they are waiting for a time when they won’t disrupt classes, likely in November and December.
“The school district, their story isn’t the same as Bruce’s story,” Medina said. “(The inspections) all being in-house and having multiple stories of what it is and what it isn’t has been problematic.”
Card and Seile, who have retained attorney Alison Emerson, say they have no plans on suing the school district — they just want the issues fixed, preferably by outside contractors inspecting the rest of the district.
Card said he hired an attorney “to make sure there wasn’t any kind of retaliation.” They plan on speaking alongside Emerson at the next Bend-La Pine school board meeting Nov. 13.
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