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November 18th, 2009 12:00 am BETH SLOVIC | News Stories

Fire Drilled

After the blaze at Marysville School, a retired inspector sounds the alarm.

THREE ALARMS: No one was hurt in the fire at Marysville K-8 School on Nov. 10.
IMAGE: Glenn Peters, aenigma.com/glenn

A Portland Public Schools employee who worked with the district’s fire detection systems for almost two decades says he recently retired in frustration because the district was sending children to schools he couldn’t certify were safe.

The ex-employee, Patrick Silver, calls the fire that ripped through Marysville K-8 School last week a “we told you so” moment—and a warning to the district that its process for inspecting schools’ early-warning systems is woefully inadequate.

“It’s a loaded gun ready to go off,” Silver says.

Silver worked at PPS for 21 years, most recently as an assistant foreman in the district’s maintenance department. He retired Sept. 1, saying PPS administrators prevented maintenance workers from documenting potential fire hazards in some of the district’s 85 schools.

“The day I retired I told them that’s the reason I’m retiring,” says Silver, 58. “I told them they were going to get people killed.”

The kindling fueling Silver’s anger includes a backlog of inspections that need to be done at schools, a previous disagreement with the Portland Fire Marshal’s Office over the type of inspections the district should perform, chronic under-funding of the district’s maintenance department, and a stock of aging school buildings.

As of Nov. 17, fire investigators were still exploring the cause of the Marysville blaze, which was first detected in the school’s east wing and engulfed a part of the roof. The fire caused $4 million in damage, $1 million of which PPS is responsible for, after insurance. Meantime, students have been relocated to the formerly mothballed Rose City Park Elementary School, five miles north of Marysville.

One thing is for certain. PPS is 60 days behind schedule on its school inspections, according to the district.

But this delay comes after PPS reached an agreement with the Portland Fire Marshal’s Office in late 2008 that the district would perform more thorough inspections. Marysville got a less thorough inspection, its last, on April 30, 2008.

The Boston-based National Fire Protection Association, which sets fire-prevention standards, spells out an exhaustive method for documenting safety deficiencies in public buildings.

In 2007, when Bryan Winchester became the Portland school district’s facilities manager, the district wasn’t using this exhaustive method—called NFPA-72—in consultation with the Fire Marshal’s Office. (Winchester left the district in August.)

Staffers like Silver wanted to conduct thorough inspections at all schools annually. But given the number of workers in the maintenance department, the catch-up process would have taken more than two years. Winchester wanted inspections done within a year, Silver says.

Until October 2008, the fire marshal said the NFPA-72 wasn’t even necessary. Most PPS buildings are so old they’re governed by codes far less strict than modern ones. (That’s why Marysville has no sprinkler system.)

Complying with older safety codes that are less rigorous is perfectly legal. But Silver considered it problematic “morally.” “They won’t spend the money to find out how big of a problem they’ve got,” he says.

Although PPS employees conduct the tests of schools’ early-warning systems, the fire marshal is the local authority responsible for enforcing inspections and checking schools for violations like blocked exits.

This year, in consultation with the fire marshal’s office again, the district changed its approach to monitoring schools’ fire alarms. PPS now hopes for the first time to conduct NFPA-72 inspections at every school in every year. The district remains behind schedule, but says that it’s improving. “This is what the fire marshal says we should do,” says Tony Magliano, the facilities manager who replaced Winchester in August.

On top of that, students perform fire drills once a week for the first four weeks of school and monthly thereafter. Amid budget cuts, the district has had to make tough choices. Eli Triplett, the foreman of the electronics division in the maintenance department and Silver’s old boss, says Silver’s criticisms are well-founded. In 1997, Triplett says, his crew had 28 people. Today it has 10. But there are no easy answers when the emphasis inside the district is on maintaining class size and teaching jobs, Triplett says.

“Do I need two more guys at the expense of two teachers?” he asks. “We’re all competing for the same money.”

With fewer people, the district has reprioritized. The 10 people on Triplett’s team, including him, are assigned exclusively to testing and fixing fire alarm systems. That has allowed the team to dig out of a years-long backlog to the present 60-day backlog. Triplett calls it an “unprecedented effort” but admits it still falls short of what people like Silver want. The fire marshal is satisfied.

“It’s uncomfortable for me that I’m not caught up,” Triplett says. “But it’s not anything I can control. I’m doing the best I can with the resources I have. I’m under pressure to catch up, but I’m in a hole.”

FACT: For months, the district has been laying the groundwork to ask voters for a potentially $1 billion construction bond issue in 2010. Public records from March to June 2009 show numerous life and safety violations at various schools. (See wweek.com/fire for a list of code violations.)
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