Seven buildings at Santa Ana College, including the administration offices and the library, have faulty fire alarms, placing thousands of students, faculty and staff in potential danger.
The alarms have been broken since at least June 2005, according to reports given to the school at that time by a contractor the college hired. Some have broken handles, others do not ring, and at least one was turned off because it would not stop sounding.
The Rancho Santiago Community College District has hired a law firm to find out why nothing was done for more than two years after reports documented the problems.
"It is an unacceptable practice to compromise the safety of our students or visitors," said Board of Trustees President John Hanna, who called an emergency meeting Tuesday for trustees to pass a resolution to repair the alarms. "Inspectors don't issue reports just for the fun of doing it. Somebody knew about this and made a conscious decision not to do anything about it. Clearly something's rotten in Denmark, and we're going to find out about it."
Inspections completed in 2005 and 2006 revealed widespread problems with the college's 1960s equipment, citing several buildings that lacked working fire alarms.
In some of those cases, campus security would not have known if there were a fire because the system makes noise only in the building where the alarm is pulled and does not alert authorities. The campus security building is one of those where the alarms don't work.
The college district in 2003 earmarked $400,000 in state maintenance funds to go toward replacing Santa Ana's nearly obsolete fire alarm system, but four years later, the overhaul has not been started.
The problems came to the attention of top district officials last month. Short-term repairs approved at the board meeting, expected to cost $68,000, should be completed in about a month. Meanwhile, security guards at the college have started a fire-watch program and hourly are patrolling buildings without alarm coverage. Other buildings without working alarms include the gym, fine-arts building and theater.
Three portable classrooms also had broken alarms, but they recently were fixed.
"I'm not sure whether it was a communication thing, a process thing, or an individual person thing," district Chancellor Eddie Hernandez said. "This should not have taken this length of time to solve it. There are plenty of people in retrospect that dropped the ball."
Santa Ana Fire Department officials, who annually review the college for fire code violations, do not inspect fire alarms but rely on the college to hire a contractor to ensure they are working.
The college's fire alarms date to about 1966, making replacement parts nearly impossible to find, according to a contractor's report this month.
Officials said the district will replace the old alarm system with one that will notify security staff of fires and include loudspeakers and strobe lights.
It could take as long as two years before the new system, expected to cost between $1.5 and $2 million, is installed.
Santa Ana College President Erlinda Martinez said she did not learn of the broken fire alarms until inspectors brought it to the college's attention again last month. She declined to state which college officials had known about the broken alarms in 2005, saying only that reports about the alarms "didn't rise to the level to where we took action."