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Highland High School failed its fire inspection before April’s blaze | #schoolsaftey


POCATELLO — Highland High School failed to meet many fire safety standards before a blaze destroyed parts of the school in April, according to investigative reports.

These reports came from the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s office and the Pocatello Fire Department, as well as an inspection report from firefighters. These documents were first obtained by Pocatello For Accountable Government Entities (P.A.G.E.). and revealed by them in a Facebook post.

RELATED | Highland High School Fire caused by electrical failure; accidental in nature

The inspection

On Nov. 28, 2022, PFD conducted an annual fire inspection on Highland High School, which the school failed. PFD did not schedule a follow-up inspection.

“The fire inspection requires a perfect score to pass, and these types of reports are not atypical for schools across Idaho,” said Courtney Fisher, spokesperson for Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25.

Nick Christensen, assistant chief of public safety and support with the fire department, echoed this sentiment.

“It’s very uncommon to go into any sort of large building and to have it pass inspection the first time,” he said, adding that with the number of people they have in fire prevention, “it becomes difficult to follow up on those.”

Fire alarm issues

The Fire Marshal and Pocatello Fire reports revealed the school’s fire alarm system was never triggered by the fire.

This allowed “the fire to rapidly grow from incipient stage to full development before the fire department was notified,” read the Fire Marshal’s report.

What alerted and brought a Pocatello Police officer to the scene was a burglar alarm, which the fire somehow triggered. By the time the fire department arrived, flames were already coming from the roof of the building.

Although the school’s D-wing didn’t have a fire alarm system, the rest of the building did — but those alarms were never triggered, despite the smoke.

Christensen said because the D-wing had been built earlier than the rest of the school, that wing of the building wasn’t required by law to have smoke detectors.

Although some laws pertaining to fire safety apply to older buildings retroactively, “for the most part, buildings are left alone to stand under the code that they were built under,” Christensen said.

After the fire, when investigators were able to get to the main and secondary fire alarm panels, they were both in “trouble mode.” When the Pocatello Fire Department inspected the school in November, the main panel was in trouble mode then as well, nearly five months before the fire.

“The school representatives were made aware of the alarm system issues and told to have the system inspected ASAP,” read the Pocatello Fire Investigation report.

Fisher said that the fire alarm system remains fully operational, even when trouble mode is activated.

“Minor issues, such as dusty sensors, can trigger the ‘in-trouble’ mode,” Fisher said. She said the district Maintenance and Operations department works with “Fire Services of Idaho (FSI) and other vendors to address ongoing system repairs, updates and replacement of fire alarm and fire suppression systems.”

Kim Stouse, community risk reduction specialist with the fire department, said the trouble mode exists “to notify the alarm company and the occupants, but the system should still have worked as designed, and it should have activated.”

“There’s some other problem besides that alarm panel that precluded that from happening,” Stouse said.

It’s unknown why the fire alarm system never activated.

Fire doors

While the Fire Marshal’s report said there were no visible building defects that could have started the fire, “defects were observed that would have substantially contributed to the fire’s spread.”

One of these defects was “the failure to maintain fire doors leading from the stage to the choir/band room corridor, as well the removal of the door to the stairs leading to the northside corridor.”

The fire department inspection report gave the school a pass on its fire-rated doors.

Fisher said the district had already started plans to service the fire doors to the choir/band room corridor, but Fire Services of Idaho hadn’t been able to perform the work yet because it was the “proprietary system of a vendor located out of town.”

Stouse said that this means that, essentially, the district was waiting for parts to come so the door could be fixed.

“Moving forward, the district is working to eliminate any proprietary equipment to ensure that it can be serviced locally,” Fisher said.

Stouse and Christensen said none of the fire doors self-closed as they’re designed to because the fire alarm system didn’t activate. When the alarm does go off, the magnets holding the doors open deactivate, allowing them to shut. Firefighters had to close the fire doors manually while battling the blaze.

Curtains

The Fire Marshal’s report concluded that the probable first fuel to the fire was the stage curtains, which the PFD fire inspection noted were not fire-rated.

“Curtains must be fire-rated for use,” read the inspection report. Another facility report from the November inspection said the curtains were a “multi-year repeat” violation.

Fisher said the district had not replaced the stage curtains at the time of the fire. She said district maintenance deals with work orders in excess of $1,500 to $2,000 per month, which requires them to often “complete projects and address issues in phases.”

Looking ahead

“PCSD 25 continually evaluates the needs of its facilities and maintains a detailed schedule for the maintenance, upgrade or replacement of systems, technology, ADA, security and physical materials,” Fisher said. “This ongoing effort requires the prioritization of projects to accomplish with the finite resources of taxpayer dollars.”

It’s not clear if the reports will affect the school’s insurance claim. The insurance investigation is still ongoing. Both the State Fire Marshal and Pocatello Fire reports ruled the fire as “accidental,” and Fisher said it’s still considered a “covered loss.”

The Fire Marshal’s report said the “fire was the result of accidental actions (or inactions) by human hand.”

“The district has taken steps to proactively address issues and incorporate lessons learned in the aftermath of the fire. These steps include raising awareness for district safety protocols and reporting requirements,” Fisher said.

Fisher also said the district has serviced the fire alarm system control panel at every school since the April 21 fire.

“PCSD 25 has a high standard of safety and will continue to raise the level of that standard to ensure the safety and well-being of its 12,500 learners and 1,700 staff members,” Fisher said.

Read the reports

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