RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Richmond Fire Department and Richmond Public Schools released in-depth timelines of their responses to the Friday night fire at Fox Elementary School.
Flames and smoke were not seen coming from the school building until 10:35 p.m., according to the Richmond Fire Department. But that was not the first time fire department crews had been dispatched to the building that night.
Responses started at 9:29 p.m. when the fire department said there was a fire alarm at the school reported by a passerby. The Richmond Fire Department never received an official notification from the Richmond Alarm Company. According to Richmond Schools, the alarm company was never notified because the fire alarm panel had not been updated to include the 804 area code in all local calls, as now required by Verizon. The school district said this caused the alarm to not register with the alarm company.
When they first arrived on the scene around 9:30 p.m., the Richmond Fire Department said no smoke or fire was visible. Crews first investigated the outside of the building and put in a request to Richmond Public Schools to gain entry to the building.
While the doors were still locked, crews continued investigating the exterior. Despite the Richmond Alarm Company reporting no alarms on their end, fire officials said they could see through a window that an alarm panel was in “trouble condition” and showed a motion detector message for room 32 on the second floor.
The text about building entry was sent to the school district 9:46 p.m. initially went unheard, according to Richmond Public Schools. The school district said they have a vacancy in their night security team which left a gap in coverage from 4 to 10 p.m. on Friday.
To make up for that gap, the Richmond Schools’ custodial manager assigned a custodial supervisor to monitor their emergency two-way radio from home. The school district said the radio that was in the custody of the custodial manager was not fully monitored, and neither was the emergency phone line that the supervisor had in their custody.
The RPS Custodial Manager was contacted through the emergency line at 9:46 p.m. about the fire alarm but was asleep and missed the text. “Unfortunately, that did lead to some communication breakdowns,” Richmond Schools Superintendent Kamras told 8News in an interview Monday.
The text was the first time a school official was first notified that the fire department needed to enter the building.
According to RPS, the message came from firstname.lastname@example.org and stated “School Page: 2300 Hanover Ave, Fox Elementary fire alarm. RFD responded. Unable to gain entry.”
Kamras doesn’t put any blame on the staff member who missed the texts. “That didn’t contribute in any way, whatsoever, to the fire,” he said.
Around five minutes after the text was sent to the RPS Custodial Manager, fire crews were able to unlock a janitor’s entrance on their own and access the ground floor. Once inside, Richmond Fire confirmed that both alarm panels showed the motion detector had been initiated and there was no fire alarm activation.
Richmond Fire said the entire building was searched twice after 9:52 p.m. and there were no hazards found. They said they never found room 32 on the second floor and later learned that 32 refers to the interior of the building’s front entrance.
According to Richmond Fire, they searched for signs of fire for 38 minutes and did not find anything. The building was secured and crews left at 10:09 p.m.
A larger response was initiated at 10:35 p.m. when there was heavy smoke and flames seen coming from the school’s top floor.
The Richmond Public Schools’ custodial manager was sent a second emergency text stating there was a working fire at the school at 10:42 p.m. According to the school district, the manager headed to the school. They were unsuccessful in contacting the RPS Facilities Director and RPS Chief Operating Officer about the fire.
At 10:49 p.m., the school district’s Security Director headed to the school and texted the Superintendent, RPS Chief of Staff, and Facilities Director about the fire alert.
A second alarm was called at 10:50 p.m. and more fire trucks and engines responded.
After a call from the RPS Chief Academic Officer, Superintendent Jason Kamras left his home to go to the school at 10:56 p.m. The Chief of Staff was awoken shortly after by multiple calls. Next to be notified was the School Board Chair.
Firefighters had to evacuate the building at 11:09 p.m. when parts of the roof started to fall and the attack was shifted to defensive.
The school board chair traveled to the school after 11:17 p.m., according to RPS.
A third alarm was struck and more firefighters responded at 11:13 p.m.
The fire was not marked under control until 2:44 a.m. Saturday and crews stayed to look for hot spots until Saturday night.
There was smoldering and smoke again Sunday morning around 8 a.m. and crews once again monitored the building for fire until 2:30 p.m.
On Monday, Superintendent Kamras said they would be working on communication and filling the vacancy on their night security team.
“They are protocols that we need to tighten up and make sure that we address and that we’re able to be fully staffed,” he said.