Mike Tiller, the director of facilities of Bend-La Pine Schools, got up before the school board Tuesday night and — intentionally or unintentionally — blew some smoke about fire protection in the schools.

“We have a long history of compliance with fire code,” he said. “We believe our students and staff are safe from fire and smoke exposure, regardless of the impaired smoke dampers at some schools, thanks to early alarm/notification, student and staff evacuation, and fire department response.”

Tiller may believe that, but it’s only part of the truth.

It is a violation of the fire code to disable smoke dampers. Smoke dampers at Summit High School weren’t just “impaired.” An inspection this summer revealed that many smoke dampers were deliberately altered so they could not close in a fire. Only a third of the dampers were found to function properly. Fire alarms were also covered or partly concealed. Students and staff may still be “safe.” They are less safe than they should be because of actions of the school district.

Tiller also misled the school board about the timeline of events. “This summer, a district technician suggested we take a fresh look at heat detectors in gym and cafeteria peaks, kitchens and mechanical spaces, and conduct fire/smoke damper testing,” he said. “Based on his suggestion, the district began the additional testing during the summer of 2018.”

Tiller’s statement makes it sound like the district was on top of safety concerns as soon as they were raised. That is not true. The first concerns were raised in February, and senior district staff apparently knew about those concerns in May. Testing didn’t begin until summer.

According to district emails, Bruce Card, a school district employee, raised concerns with his supervisors on Feb. 5 that the district was doing its annual fire testing incorrectly.

The district wasn’t inspecting the smoke dampers, he wrote in an email, noting that some school staff had permanently bypassed dampers by locking them in an open position. “My concerns are the liability we carry for not conducting our annual fire testing correctly and the fact that there are several of these permanently bypassed throughout the district,” he wrote.

The district did not respond.

If that didn’t get the district’s attention, a few days later, the office manager at Summit sent a worried email to the district’s maintenance staff wondering if the building’s fire alarm should be checked. “Yesterday we had an actual fire with lots of smoke and no alarm went off,” she wrote. “It was in the counseling office area and a toaster oven caught on fire and a staff person ran through the hall with it. The smoke was smelled in lots of areas.”

Card sent another email — similar to his first — on Feb. 9. Again, no response from the district. Card didn’t quit. He went to the state fire marshal and then the Bend fire marshal. The school district definitely started paying attention after he got a lawyer.

It’s not clear exactly when the school district’s senior staff first knew about the problems Card identified, but Superintendent Shay Mikalson sent out an email on May 2 asking staff to bring him up to speed.

This issue of smoke dampers matters. Why?

The dampers look like ducts for a heating system that open and close. They are designed to close in a fire to inhibit the passage of smoke throughout a building. For instance, Bend Fire Marshal Larry Medina told us there was an incident at a memory care facility in Bend where his staff thought smoke spread further throughout the building than it should have. The smoke dampers were inspected and, sure enough, they weren’t closing like they were supposed to.

At Summit, screws were driven through some of the smoke dampers to force them into the open position. Why would district staff do that? There are also apparently problems with smoke dampers at Sky View. The district has launched an effort to do testing at all its schools.

Parents should be comforted that Fire Marshal Medina believes the district is taking the issue seriously. He has chosen not to cite the district for its violations, yet.

What was worrying for him, he told us, was when he heard that district staff may have instructed employees not to report some fire safety issues. He doesn’t know if that’s true. Neither do we. The district told him it was not. What is the public to think, though, especially given the holes in Tiller’s presentation?

Medina said the culture in the school district “seems to be don’t bring attention to yourself.” But “we want to be confident when we drop our kids off that they are safe.”

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