School district releases Parkcrest school fire investigation report

Six months after a fire damaged Parkcrest Elementary School beyond repair, the school district is releasing a report on the blaze.

The report describes the firefighting efforts, the investigation, conclusions and recommendations going forward.

On Monday evening (Jan. 13), the school board received the report and discussed the findings with Kamloops Fire Rescue (KFR) Chief Mike Adams.

"I am (satisfied)," board chair Katleen Karpuk tells KamloopsMatters. "It reaffirms we've been maintaining our buildings, that shows we've been doing our jobs."

The report contains some newly public details on what happened on Sept. 5, 2019. At the time of the fire, three staff were on hand. They initially heard the alarm, it states, but thought it was a false alarm and two tried to reset it. As the alarm paused then continued, the third staff member spotted smoke and the three exited the school and called KFR. The resetting of the fire alarm delayed KFR's response time by three minutes and 46 seconds, according to the report.

"It's difficult to speculate (if that mattered)," Adams says. "The sooner we're informed, the better."

The report also notes that if sprinklers had been installed in the school, they might have been able to help save 20 per cent of the structure. Because the fire started above where the sprinklers are installed, they would have been less effective. When asked by the school board if 20 per cent would have been useable in the future, Adams was doubtful.

"With 80 per cent of the building damaged, it's more than likely you'd have knocked the building down and be in the same position," he said.

There had been three previous minor incidents involving smoke at the school in 2015, but the report says after investigation, KFR did not connect those incidents to the September fire.

It also restates what was released in December.

"The area of the fire origin was determined to be somewhere in the walls or concealed space between the drop ceiling and roof," it reads. "The most likely origin was the HVAC system in the concealer space above four classrooms on the west side of the building."

Recommendations from the report include annually reviewing with staff the use of fire panels and alarm systems, continued upgrading of sprinkler systems throughout the district and more meetings between the school district and KFR on fire prevention strategies. Sprinkler systems are currently in 40 of the district's 60 buildings. Plans are to install them in the rest of the buildings, but it's a costly process.

Each year the district receives $3.5 million in grants for facilities projects, which includes roofs, floors and water systems; Kay Bingham Elementary is due for the next sprinkler system at a cost of nearly $350,000.

During the school board meeting, Supt. Alison Sidow said it's an issue the district is grappling with.

"These are buildings that were built in the 1960s," she said. "They're well-maintained but ageing."

Adams added that new building codes, including sprinkler systems built in from the beginning, are making schools safer.

"Your children are safer from a fire in a school than your home," noted trustee John O'Fee, in regards to the standards schools are built to.

Both Adams and Sidow noted that one of the silver linings from the Parkcrest fire is the increased communication and collaboration occurring between the school district and KFR.

"They've done a fantastic job," Adams says of the district. "We're going to continue to build on that relationship."

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