Officials Support Immediate Start To Elementary School Fire Systems Redesign

Joint Facilities Committee recommends selecting an architect to design systems now—even though construction can not begin until summer—along with discussing related issues.

Nadine Bell of the Joint Facilities Committee was adamant about the town's need to show progress in addressing fire code violations at Stevens and West Hill Elementary Schools that were cited in the 2012 Fire Marshal's Report. Both schools were found to be non-compliant chiefly due to their absence of emergency sprinkler systems.

"We need to show the community we're taking action on this," she insisted.

The committee met Monday to discuss steps that were being taken to adhere to the report's findings. Town Manager Barbara Gilbert, however, pointed out that actual construction on the sprinklers could not begin until July. 

But, Bell, who also sits on the Town Council, pressed her on the availability of monies to begin the process immediately by contracting an architect to produce system designs. Gilbert acknowledged the existence of a $180,000 surplus in one of the town's budgetary funds.

"So, we have the money to begin designs," Bell concluded.

Gilbert agreed, stating that the West Hill system design is projected to cost $70,000. Stevens's design is expected to cost less because, in a new wrinkle, the school may not require sprinklers after all, on account of it having higher ceilings than West Hill. 

However, other changes will have to be made if Stevens is to become code-compliant without sprinkler installation.

Chair Timothy Moriarty explained that the school will have to "get students off the stage and out of closets," referring to areas where the school has had to conduct some of its instruction, due to space constraints. Gilbert added that a "drastic redesign" of  "a wall of windows" in one area of the school would also be necessary. 

Fire Marshall Rich Rehnstrom was in attendance and agreed with Moriarty's contention that, regardless, it is a "priority to get Stevens students into suitable spaces."

Whether or not Stevens is outfitted with sprinklers, West Hill will definitely require them, due to its lower ceilings. The school will also have to undergo "asbestos abatement" since an analysis located traces of the substance in a small area of the building.

These considerations affect the decision as to which school's fire system will be overhauled first.

Moriarty observed that "if we do West Hill, we're gonna have to do the asbestos first," which would increase both the project's overall cost and completion time. He implied that finishing Stevens first would make more sense since it contains no asbestos and may not need sprinklers. 

However, Gilbert argued that the decision about which school's project to undertake first should rest with Rehnstrom. The fire marshal nodded in agreement but did not specify a recommendation.

Another question that members considered was whether to consider the two schools' systems as individual projects or a joint one. Gilbert listed two primary advantages to treating them separately.

"If we do it as one project, it has to go out for referendum," due to to the total cost of the undertaking, she stated in explanation of the first benefit. 

The second advantage she cited was the prospect of keeping work at both schools under $1 M. Projects above $1 M are classified differently by the state and thus make the town's process of obtaining reimbursement more complicated and time-consuming.

However, for the design phase of the systems, she recommended treating them as a single entity. "It's easier to hire an architect if you're designing both systems at once," she reasoned.

Committee members concurred on both points. They subsequently agreed to take steps toward procuring an architect for the design process, providing the evidence of movement on the issue sought by Councillor Bell. 

The Joint Facilities Committee will resume discussions of the West Hill and Stevens fire system projects at their next meeting in January.

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