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District May Face Charges or Closure for Faulty Alarms : Schools: A state inspector finds the fire-warning systems at three campuses deficient--or not even installed.

August 09, 1992|SUZAN SCHILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Downey officials have threatened to seek criminal charges against the Downey Unified School District for failing to fix fire alarm systems at three schools and will recommend that state officials shut down the buildings if the repairs are not made by the opening of school on Sept. 15.

A state fire inspector found the fire alarms either have not been installed, do not work or do not meet minimum state requirements in classrooms and hallways at Gauldin Elementary, Downey High and Warren High, said city Fire Marshal Dennis Groat.

Unless the alarm systems are brought up to state standards, the case will be turned over to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said Assistant City Atty. Timothy McOsker.

Supt. Edward Sussman said the school district has fixed problems with the alarm systems at two other schools and has asked the city for money to pay for alarms at the three schools that do not meet state standards. But he maintains that students were never in danger.

"We believed we were OK in case of an emergency," Sussman said. "Every year we have disaster drills. The bells work."

Fire Department records indicate that the fire alarm systems have not worked since January, 1991; at Warren High officials devised a plan for students to run to the office in case a blaze broke out in a classroom.

School district officials have been warned repeatedly to upgrade the alarm systems, Groat said, but deadlines were extended when the Fire Department was assured the work would be done.

In August, 1991, for example, inspections at all three schools found that the manual alarms--red "pull boxes" that allow anyone to activate a warning siren--were turned off, Fire Department records show. At Gauldin Elementary the power for the fire alarm system was disconnected, and the two-way communication system to the classrooms did not work.

Assistant Supt. Gary Orsinger assured Fire Chief Ron Irwin in a letter dated Sept. 16, 1991, that "these fire alarm modernizations will be treated on a top priority basis."

All three schools failed to pass the latest inspection Monday.

At Warren High School, for example, the alarm system could be activated from the office, but when state and city fire officials pulled a red fire alarm in the hallway, it produced no sound, Groat said.

He said if the alarm box does not work during a fire, it could delay evacuation of the school. "If there was a hazardous-waste accident or other emergency, we would have to evacuate that school immediately," Groat said. "No delay would be acceptable."

Last week the Downey school board passed an emergency measure to spend $200,000 to fix the alarm systems, but only if the City Council allocates the funds.

In May the council agreed to give the district $60,000 in federal funds to pay for the fire alarms at two schools. In addition, the council awarded the district $140,000 to repair 200 drinking fountains. But Tuesday the council will consider directing the district to spend the entire $200,000 on the alarm systems.

"The city has tried to cooperate with the schools and understand their financial difficulties," said Assistant City Manager Lee Powell. "It's become a big problem. We want to get it solved as soon as possible. We think it's an important enough item that if the school district won't fund it, we will."

If the city approves the money, the school district will meet the Sept. 15 deadline for installing the alarms, Sussman said. "We'll have the systems up and running by the first day of school," he said.

PTA member Linda Davis, whose 16-year-old daughter is a junior at Warren High, said most parents were not aware the alarm boxes did not work.

"I had no idea. As a parent I am very concerned. . . . What would they do if there was a fire? The classes are pretty packed."

To keep Warren High open last fall, fire officials and school administrators initiated the "Captain Quake" program to be used instead of the alarm boxes in an emergency. The program required two students in each class to be designated as runners. If a fire broke out, the students would dash to the office and have someone trigger the central alarm system.

Fire Marshal Groat said he agreed to the plan only as a temporary measure. "We felt in the interim we would accept the human-type system to give the school district the time to make the repairs" on the alarm system, he said. But after 11 months, the repairs still are not finished.

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