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650 Dallas Classrooms Failed to Have Fire Alarms Installed

650 Dallas Classrooms Failed to Have Fire Alarms Installed

Portable buildings at Kleberg Elementary in Rylie are among the many at southern Dallas schools that are not connected to the main building's fire alarm system.

Dallas Morning News via YellowBrix

May 30, 2010

DALLAS – Dallas ISD has failed to install fire alarms in hundreds of portable buildings across the district, violating fire codes and leaving students without the built-in protection of blaring alerts that signal a blaze on campus.

Portable buildings at Kleberg Elementary in Rylie are among the many at southern Dallas schools that are not connected to the main building’s fire alarm system.

The potentially dangerous situation has been neglected for several years, as budget-strapped DISD has struggled to find money to fix the problem and the city’s fire department – charged with enforcing the fire code – has tolerated delays, records show.

Fire officials say that portables in violation have battery-operated smoke detectors and that the main-building public address system can be used to alert children in portables to a fire.

Still, they acknowledge that the lack of a wired-in fire alarm is a fire hazard. In Houston, for example, nearly 90 percent of portables have connected fire alarms, compared with 62 percent in Dallas.

This school year, DISD connected 154 portable buildings to the alarm systems at 27 campuses, part of a years-long, phased-in approach to correct the code violations that were permitted by the fire department.

About 650 portables still need permanent fire-alarm protection. They are on 111 DISD campuses, with more in southern Dallas than other areas of the city.

Because of budget and staff constraints, it will take about three years to address those portables, said Joel Falcon, executive director of maintenance services at DISD, which oversees repairs of portables.

“We’ve got a resource issue. We just don’t have enough manpower,” he said. It cost $204,266 to address the 154 portables this year, said Falcon, and $910,000 more would be needed to connect the remaining portables to fire alarms.

On Thursday, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he was aware of the overall facility issues in the district but did not know the specifics of the fire alarm situation until The Dallas Morning News began asking questions about it.

“Certainly it is a concern,” he said.

When asked about the staff and money constraints cited for delays, Hinojosa said, “For safety, we have to redirect resources.”

But before spending that money, the district would assess whether it needs all portables currently on campuses.

DISD has launched multimillion-dollar projects to build, expand and renovate schools – including an upgrade of fire-protection systems – as part a $1.35 billion bond program approved by voters in 2008. Phil Jamison, who oversees the program, said bond money is for permanent buildings, not portables viewed as temporary school facilities. “Portables do not qualify,” he said.

The phase-in schedule to install alarms satisfied Dallas fire officials, who had a realistic attitude about what can be accomplished.

“We’re comfortable with the time frame that DISD is providing us in order to come into compliance,” said Cynthia Michaels, section chief in the Inspections & Life Safety Education Division at Dallas Fire-Rescue.

DISD, like the city of Dallas right now, is under huge budget problems,” Michaels said. “So let’s say our division right now said, ‘OK, you’ve got to have all this done in a year.’ There’s no way they can do it. It can’t happen.”

She added: “We’re very confident that the students in the [portables] buildings are safe, otherwise we wouldn’t allow them to be there.”

Still, the situation is neither ideal nor equitable, with children in portables not afforded the same fire protection as children in main school buildings.

There’s no guarantee that children in portables can hear the fire alarm in the main building – “not when your door is closed, you’re showing a movie and the air conditioning is on,” said Kurt Harris, an administrator in the state fire marshal’s office and past president of the Texas Fire Marshal’s Association.

Most students in Dallas ISD are low-income and Latino, and David Hinojosa, senior litigator at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the fire alarm situation in portables “a sad state of affairs.”

He wondered why the district couldn’t find the money to address the problem, and raised questions about the role of the Dallas fire department, which “maybe isn’t enforcing its own laws.”

“It’s just quite insane,” David Hinojosa said. “If they [DISD officials] think they don’t have money now … wait until an accident happens and some of these kids, some of the teachers, are harmed. And then they’ll really be deep into a lawsuit. And the fire department might be involved as well.”

Portables have been part of the school landscape in Dallas ISD for many years, a way to house children on campuses without building or expanding schools. While the district hoped to rid campuses of many portables after voters approved school construction bonds in 2002, about 1,700 portable buildings remain.

The fire alarm issue came to the forefront in 2006, according to section chief Michaels, when Dallas amended its fire code to require that all portables within 100 feet of the main school building be tied into the school’s fire alarm system.

The point is to link those portables to an integrated fire protection system serving the whole school, said Harris, in the state fire marshal’s office.

“The kids in the portable need to know there is an emergency in the building,” he said, whether that be a fire or an intruder with a gun.

It’s unclear whether students in portables are inherently at greater or lesser risk from fire. There were 231 fires in Texas schools in 2008, with fewer than 10 fires in portable buildings, according to the state fire marshal’s office. There are more than 8,500 public schools in Texas.

The Dallas Morning News found repeated references to portables violating codes in a review of more than 100 fire inspection reports at Dallas schools.

In November 2008, a fire inspector wrote to DISD maintenance official Ronald Frasher about two schools that needed to extend their alarm systems to portables, including one school that had been put on notice about the problem a year earlier.

Frasher couldn’t say when the work would be done, writing: “Funds have not been identified to complete any portables. I have approximately 800 in violation throughout the district.”

At that time, DISD was in the throes of a budget crisis that sparked hundreds of teacher layoffs and drained more of the district’s already meager reserves.

Michaels, of Dallas Fire-Rescue, recalls that in fall 2008, she told district officials: “You all have to come up with a game plan on how to address this. We just can’t go on and on and on and on.”

At the end of April 2009, the district wrote to Michaels, saying the goal was to install fire alarms in 159 portables at 33 schools by Dec. 31, 2009. “Plans for the remainder of portable buildings (approx. 650) are forthcoming,” the memo stated.

Falcon, who oversees maintenance services, says his goal is to bring 200 portables into compliance each year over the next three years.

In Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, nearly 90 percent of 1,798 portable buildings are connected to fire alarm systems, according to Issa Dadoush, general manager over facility operations and maintenance.

Dadoush, who joined the district a month ago, said that any portable without a fire alarm is not acceptable.

“There are never enough measures when it comes to safety,” he said. “Our goal is to have all of them linked to the fire alarm system.”


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