Firefighters have been standing by at Ridgefield High School every day after school for weeks now as part of a “fire watch” required to keep the building open in the wake of problems discovered with the emergency lighting system.
A firefighter is on duty at RHS to help with a possible evacuation in the darkened hallways, should clearing the building be necessary due to a fire, fire alarm, or other emergency.
“The emergency lighting at the high school is not working properly,” Fire Chief Jerry Myers said. “For just a couple weeks now, when there’s an evening event at the school, we’ve had firefighters standing by to assist with evacuation if there’s a power failure and it’s dark.
“A single fireman goes for the hours that the building is occupied after school,” Myers said.
The fire chief said town and school officials were working to get the lighting problems fixed, and were hopeful the fire watch program can be halted soon.
“There are a couple of factors at play here.
Wednesday night we have an inspection scheduled,” Myers said. “If everything goes the way we hope it will, it should be by the end of the week. The overriding concern is safety.”
“After school is officially out at 2:30, that’s when it starts. During the day when school is in session there’s an overabundance of staff members and the plan is that during the day those staff members would assist with evacuation,” the fire chief said.
“But after school is over the number of staff members, and where they are in the building, gets drastically reduced, so from that point on we have a firefighter there.”
Ridgefield High School is about a 322,000-square foot building, and has about 1,630 students in it during the school day.
With the amount of after-school activity at the high school, the fire watch is every weekday afternoon and most weekend days, as well.
“High schools are like small cities — there is always something going on,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Collins said. “Students, residents, and groups who rent the facility are there after the school day ends...
“We have staff trained and equipped during the day and after school. For all events we must pay firemen to be on staff even though it is my understanding the lighting issues have been corrected,” Collins said, responding to an email.
The lighting situation has not curtailed the busy life of the school.
“Everything is going on as scheduled. There was no impact to activities,” Collins said.
The high school isn’t completely in the dark, according to the superintendent.
“There was definitely emergency lighting. I was there and saw it working,” Collins said. “There were two stairwells that were reported as being dark.”
Still, until all the emergency lights are repaired and inspected, the fire watch is required when people are in the building after hours.
The cost is “a single firefighter’s overtime pay for the amount of time that something is going on after hours in the school,” Myers said.
That rate varies depending on the pay level of the firefighter working the shift. But for budgeting purposes, Myers said “as an overtime rate I use an average of $53 an hour.”
He didn’t have a total cost for the weeks of the fire watch.
“I haven’t figured it out yet, because it’s still an ongoing thing,” Myers said. “It’s hour for hour any time the school is occupied after hours, from 2:30 on. Sometimes there’s only a couple of hours of after-school events, sometimes it goes as late as 10 o’clock at night.”
The fire watch is, essentially, an alternative way to meet code requirements and keep the building open when the emergency lighting isn’t working properly.
“The code says the lighting is required,” Myers said. “Because the lighting is required, technically the building shouldn’t be occupied. As an alternative to that we can put a firefighter in place on a fire watch, and the building can still be used.”
Collins thought the problem dated back to Feb. 25, when a power outage caused students to be dismissed early from four schools.
Chief Myers said the emergency lighting had been checked out in all the schools.
“The schools had their contractor there the next day, they started at the elementary schools and worked their way up to the high school,” Myers said.
“The contractor for the school system has gone through all the other buildings and certified that they’re working,” Myers said. “We have not inspected all the other schools yet, we’re concentrating on the high school and getting that up and running.”
Collins said he expected the situation to be set straight soon.
“It is my understanding the lights have been fixed, and they are going to run tests on the system,” Collins said.
“...I have not heard of any other issues at any other schools and I believe the work has been completed and is ready to be reinspected.”