CA: Arson Hit School Before Alarm Updated...Heat Detectors Apparently Malfunction : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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Title: Arson Hit Before Alarm was Updated

By Stuart Leavenworth Bee Staff Writer

April 18, 2000

Grant High School was preparing to upgrade its fire detectors before an arsonist's blaze spread through several classrooms Saturday, causing $1.2 million in damage and exposing holes in the school's early warning system. After voters in the Grant Joint Union High School District rejected a bond measure in November, the district received state funds for a new centralized system to detect fires and intrusions at its schools. But the system hasn't been installed.

According to fire authorities, a functioning detection system would have allowed fire crews to respond earlier and prevent much of the damage.

"Unfortunately, we didn't get it installed before this incident occurred," said Larry Buchanan, superintendent of the Grant district. He said the district now plans to speed up the work, while seeking federal funds for other security upgrades.

Some say the blaze is just the latest illustration of how schools are vulnerable to costly and potentially deadly fires, since there is no specific state requirement for them to include electronic smoke detectors and other common fire-prevention equipment.

"This isn't all that unusual," said Paul Smith, chief of staff for Assemblyman Ted Lempert, D-Redwood City, who has long called for better fire protections in schools. "There are very few schools that have both smoke detectors and sprinklers."

As of Monday evening, authorities had made no arrests or identified any suspects in the arson, which gutted two classrooms and damaged at least two others in the school's west campus.

To help the investigation, the district has posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Those with information on the arson may call (916) 264-5419.

Contrary to early reports, Grant High School uses heat detectors, not smoke detectors, in each of its classrooms, Buchanan said. The district also has a centralized warning system that is supposed to immediately alert district police whenever one of its heat detectors, fire alarms or burglar alarms is activated.

In Saturday's fire, the system alerted district police of a possible intruder, but not a fire. Investigators were still checking Monday why the heat detectors apparently didn't work as designed.

The school's system was last checked by Fire Department inspectors as recently as 1998, but inspection records weren't immediately available, according to city Fire Marshal Troy Malaspino.

Grant officials have long known that their fire detection systems needed an upgrade. According to Buchanan, Grant High's heat detectors are at least 10 years old.

Last year, the Grant district asked voters to approve a $67.6 million bond measure that would have earmarked money for fire alarm upgrades at its five high schools, five junior high schools, three education centers and one charter magnet school.

Sixty-two percent of voters supported the measure, but it fell short of the two-thirds needed to pass. As a result, Grant trustees were forced to seek $47 million in hardship funds from the state, some of which will be used for fire and security upgrades.

In coming weeks, the district hopes to install a new control system that will better alert police of fires or intrusion. Now, district police receive a computer printout of alarms that are activated. With the new system, said Buchanan, a control panel will light up whenever an alarm is triggered.

In addition, the district is seeking more than $3 million in state and federal funds to install video cameras and other electronics to detect intruders, vandals and fires. If the district receives the funding, the upgrade could be complete in three years, he said.

Other schools statewide also are scrambling to add new smoke detectors and safeguards. State law only requires that schools have "fire warning systems," which in many cases only means a hand-pulled fire alarm.

Since 1997, Lempert has pushed legislation that would require districts to install automatic smoke detection systems and sprinklers in all new or refurbished schools.

Lempert, who introduced the bill after a 1997 fire gutted a wing of a school in East Palo Alto, estimates that the state's share of paying for sprinklers and detectors would be about $137 million.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson twice vetoed the legislation, arguing that lawmakers hadn't justified the bill's price tag. Lempert this year has introduced a modified version of the bill. Gov. Gray Davis hasn't taken a position on the bill, which is now in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, said Smith, Lempert's chief aide.

At Grant High, they are rushing to replace classrooms before next Tuesday, when nearly 2,000 students return from spring break.

To meet that deadline, four portable classrooms will be installed at the school Thursday, after which Sacramento Municipal Utility District will either install new electric lines or generators for the buildings, Buchanan said.

"We will make it," Buchanan said. "There will be some inconvenience, but school will go on."


-- (, April 19, 2000

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