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Published: September 16, 2008 05:45 am ShareThisPrintThis
Deputy chief questions safety at schools
By Patrick Anderson
Staff Writer

An emergency, full-time reopening of Bay View fire station, intermittently closed because of budget cuts that have trimmed $239,000 from the Fire Department payroll so far this summer, is being considered in response to safety concerns emanating from some quarters of the department about Beeman Elementary School.
The concerns were first broached this summer before the opening of school by Deputy fire Chief Stephen Aiello despite the assurances of the fire chief, city building inspector, school superintendent and modular project building committee that the schools were safe and adhered to all city and state codes.
It will be discussed at a special meeting of City Council tonight at 6 at City Hall.
In a two-page single-spaced Aug. 10 message to the School Committee, city officials and members of the Fire Department, Aiello broached fire safety concerns about Beeman, Plum Cove and Veterans' elementary schools - where modular classrooms were added to existing buildings this summer - as well as inadequacies in a number of school buildings.
Included in Aiello's critique was the concern, since confirmed, that the alarm systems in the old elementary schools, Beeman and Plum Cove in particular, would not activate in the modulars.
The new classroom space added by the modulars subjected the entire schools buildings to state laws requiring sprinklers.
In March, Building Inspector William Sanborn, Fire Chief Barry McKay and the ad hoc modular building committee, reviewed the plan for the new classrooms and decided that they were safe and the schools would not be in violation if they didn't include sprinklers.
This August, McKay and Sanborn signed certificate of occupancies for the buildings, despite the objections of Aiello.
But Aiello was not convinced and, on the basis of a fire drill conducted one week into the school year, called for a two-firefighter detail, or "fire watch," hired and stationed at Beeman until the alarm and sprinkler issues at the school could be satisfied.
"While conducting a fire drill today at Beeman School it was determined that there are a few serious fire protection issues," Aiello said in an e-mail. "When testing a fire alarm in the device in the old section of the school, the fire alarms in the new section of the school did not activate, leaving occupants unaware of the alarm activation. In addition, when the testing a pull station in the breezeway of the old section, it did not activate the fire alarm system."
The e-mail went to Beeman Principal Ellen Sibley, Superintendent Christopher Farmer, Mayor Carolyn Kirk, the School Committee, several firefighters and the president of the firefighters union.
Responding to the call for the "fire watch" McKay met with school officials and worked out a temporary system to make up for the alarms activating in one section of the building but not the other. Under the plan, three paraprofessionals who work near the entrance to the modular wing are to make sure everyone in that area is aware of an alarm. The principal will also check to make sure the new wing is evacuated.
After meeting with McKay, Aiello later that night rescinded his order for a fire watch, but said he still felt the buildings presented fire hazards.
"Mrs. Sibley has established a plan to provide for alarm monitoring and occupant/fire department notification in the event of an alarm activation utilizing school resources," Aiello said. "However, I cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of the issues and the need for immediate corrective action of the noted building code violations and fire alarm deficiencies."
In light of Aiello's concerns, Ward 4 City Councilor Jackie Hardy requested a special City Council meeting to discuss the possibility of keeping Bay View open around the clock.
Yesterday, exasperated city officials said they were confident the schools are safe and - while they all wish Bay View could be open - did not think the modulars created an emergency.
"I have yet to see a violation, even though Aiello says there are," said Ward 3 Councilor Steve Curcuru. "As far as I am concerned, the modulars are safe. Where was he during the review process?"
"There are no code violations," Farmer said. "There have been issues; they have been tackled."
Sanborn said some mechanical problems at Beeman with alarms and fire doors had been fixed and that he stood by his original analysis that attaching modulars to Beeman did not require the rest of the old building to be outfitted with sprinklers.
At this point there were no problems at Plum Cove that needed to be addressed, he said.
Aiello was not on duty yesterday and attempts to reach him at home were unsuccessful.
Debate about re-opening Bay View or hiring a fire watch at Beeman comes after the fiscal 2009 budget, submitted by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and approved by City Council, closed the Magnolia fire station and cut back on overtime required to keep Bay View open full time during firefighter vacations and sick days.
According to the mayor's office, since July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, the city has spent $41,949 in overtime, compared with $280,748 last year.
The summer months are typically the most reliant on overtime for staffing, due to the number of vacations taken during that period.
Kirk yesterday said she hoped frustration over the cut in overtime was not playing a part in the issue.
"Legitimate threats to public safety are taken seriously and in this instance, the fire chief, building inspector, architect, school administration and building committee are all in disagreement with the deputy chief's assessment of the safety of Beeman and Plum Cove schools," Kirk said. "I think it is totally unnecessary to get City Council and School Committee and community in an uproar and I seriously hope this is not about the cuts to the overtime budget."
Patrick Anderson can be reached at [email protected]com.
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