RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — An inspection report for the now-scorched Fox Elementary school shows eight fire code violations and Richmond Public Schools claim they never received the documents.
The Richmond Fire Department released their inspection records for William Fox Elementary on Friday after 8News submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records request.
The documents, dating back to 2010, show months — and up to a year, in some cases — between initial violations, and when the department listed them as resolved.
The most recent report, dated Aug. 24, 2021, said all code violations were to be corrected by Sep. 30, 2021, but it appears that these corrections were never made.
The 2021 report showed more than double the number of violations found in earlier reports. Most inspections showed two or three violations, but a September 2013 inspection showed five violations.
There were also apparent inconsistencies in the frequency of inspections. While inspections seemed to usually be annual, there were also occasionally large gaps in the record — particularly in a period from 2016 to 2019 when the school went nearly three years without inspection.
An audit of the Richmond Fire Department conducted by City Auditor Louis Lassiter reveals that a number of these issues were addressed in June 2021.
According to the audit, 40 of the 48 inspected schools had “unsatisfactory inspections.”
The auditor’s office concluded in the report that schools without inspections and unaddressed violations could threaten the life and safety of staff and students.
The audit also explained that prior to 2020, the Fire Marshall’s Office did not have a formal process for sharing the results of inspections. Reports were typically left with schools’ representatives and violations were not forwarded to Richmond Schools’ Facility Services staff.
Beginning in April 2020, inspectors from the Fire Marshall’s Office started forwarding all reports to Richmond Schools’ Facility Services Director, according to the audit.
Sarah Abubaker, a spokesperson from Richmond Public Schools, said that the updated communication system described in the audit was never fully introduced.
“There was no consistent reporting structure,” claimed Abubaker. “Sometimes we did get reports and other times, like Fox, we did not.”
The revelation of the documents made her worry about how many other schools may have unreported code violations.
“Now we’re concerned about code violations they didn’t tell us about,” said Abubaker.
The 2021 inspection also reported several obstructions, including a photocopier covering an exit to one of the classrooms, and chains on the doors for an exit ramp (although these chains were reportedly removed daily by maintenance workers during school hours).
At 9:46 p.m. on Feb. 11, Richmond Fire was unable to gain entry to Fox Elementary when responding to the fire because the Custodial Manager was reportedly asleep and did not see the text.
Other violations in the 2021 inspection included an obstructed electrical panel, an extension cord being used as a substitute for permanent wiring and “combustible materials” in the boiler and sprinkler rooms.
8News reached out to the Fire Marshall’s Office for comment on any of these discrepancies and they have not responded at the time of this report.
Alarm panel was found to be faulty months before Fox fire
The August 2021 inspection report also found that the alarm system was in “trouble” mode and there was no updated annual inspection report.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, when an alarm is in “trouble” mode, there’s an electronic or mechanical issue with the alarm, such as a faulty circuit.
Abubaker said that the company behind the alarm system, Johnson Controls, was contacted to fix it. A September service report from the company confirms the “trouble” mode issue was resolved.
On Feb. 11, 2022, the school’s alarm system reportedly excluded a vital set of numbers needed to begin alerting authorities — the city’s 804 area code.
Firefighters were initially confused as to the nature of the alarm, according to Fire Chief Melvin Carter.
“We’re not certain if it was a fire alarm, a motion detector. We’re still investigating,” Carter said during a press conference the morning after the fire.
Abubaker said that she believed Johnson Controls should have updated the 804 area code during their September inspection.
A statement by a Johnson Controls spokesperson, however, disputed that claim, saying, “Johnson Controls monitors the fire alarms, we do not service the equipment at Fox Elementary School.”
The existence of the September service report appears to dispute this claim.
Abubaker further added that since the Fox fire occurred, all fire panels inside Richmond public schools had been inspected and, “all but 10 are working properly.”
Abubaker said those 10 panels will still sound an alarm, and Johnson Controls is working to “install a cellular dialer to replace the non-functioning landline.”
This story is developing. Check back for updates.