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College fire alarm lapses decried

Outside report blames bureaucratic failures for endangering staff and students at the Santa Ana campus.

March 14, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Broken fire alarms at nearly a dozen buildings at Santa Ana College went unrepaired for more than two years because of miscommunication and a can't-someone-else-do-it mentality, and because officials did not declare an emergency to fix the antiquated system, an investigation by a law firm found.

"Everybody thought it was someone else's responsibility," said Eddie Hernandez, chancellor of the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

The investigation was performed by Liebert Cassidy Whitmore of Los Angeles at Hernandez's request after widespread problems that placed thousands of students, faculty and staff in potential danger became public in October. The faulty alarms had been documented in inspections in 2005 and 2006, but not repaired. The findings of the investigation were released to The Times this week.

Six entire buildings -- including the gym, fine arts building and library -- had no working fire alarms at various times over two years. At least three other buildings had some that worked. Some alarms had broken handles, others did not ring, and at least one was turned off because it would not stop sounding.

Campus and district officials put off repairs because they thought a new system was coming soon, according to the report. "There was a feeling of 'Why fix these things if they're going to be replaced?' " said John Hanna, a community college district board member. "But that's no excuse."

Officials made another major mistake by not starting a fire watch when they first learned alarms were broken, Hernandez said, which left buildings unmonitored by human or machine.

Meanwhile, officials used the $400,000 in state money that had been earmarked to replace the system to paint and waterproof the exteriors of some of the same buildings that lacked working alarms.

The college's safety committee disbanded several years ago.

If the district board had been notified of the problem immediately, it could have drafted an emergency resolution that could have bypassed the lengthy bidding process and promptly fixed the alarms, according to the report.

That's what the board did once news of the broken fire alarms reached board members in October and the campus newspaper El Don wrote a story about the lapses.

The board called an emergency meeting, instituted a 24-hour fire watch and fast-tracked repairs for the aging system. Less than two months later, the old system was restored to working order. This month, the board is scheduled to approve a contractor to install a new fire alarm and public address system. That system, at a cost of about $1 million, should be operating by the end of the year.

The report portrays a complicated web of campus and district bureaucracy, with at least six officials passing around information about the broken alarms for two years but taking little action.

For nearly three years before the problem became public, campus and district officials drafted and revised plans to replace the entire system but did not send forward a proposal to repair the existing one, district spokeswoman Laurie Weidner said. "We wanted to make sure we made the right investment," she said. "We don't take the expenditure of public funds lightly."

Santa Ana College President Erlinda Martinez knew the alarms were malfunctioning to some extent, asking in August 2007 for a faulty alarm -- which buzzed constantly -- outside her temporary office to be silenced. "She had a very stressful day and just wanted the buzzer to be shut off," according to the report.

The investigation narrowed in on six officials. At the college: Bruce Bromberger, plant manager; and Noemi Kanouse, vice president of administrative services. At the district: James Wooley, safety and security supervisor; Al Chin, director of safety and security; Don Maus, environmental and safety services manager; and Bob Brown, director of construction and support services, who retired in 2006.

All six were apparently cited in the report for not fulfilling their responsibilities regarding the fire alarms, though how they erred is undetermined because district authorities blacked out names when referring to mistakes they made.

The district also took disciplinary action against those faulted by the report.

Bromberger, who was responsible for the maintenance and repair of fire alarms at the college, resigned in February. Chin, who is responsible for fire alarm systems at the district and college and communications about safety, was suspended for two weeks without pay. Kanouse, responsible for facilities maintenance at the college, was transferred to serve as vice chancellor at the district and given a pay cut.

Three other officials received letters of reprimand but kept their jobs.

--

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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