TOTS EXCLUSIVE: School Officials Knew of Dangerous Fire Safety Conditions at New Rochelle High School For Years, Failed to Act

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Senior administration officials and school board members knew of major fire safety deficiencies at New Rochelle High School for years and failed to address them. These serious fire hazards first came to light in 2007 but were not fully repaired until 2015.

Based on documents obtained by Talk of the Sound, officials knew entire sections of the school did not have fire or smoke detectors, that of those that did many were antiquated and could not communicate their location back to the fire control panel, the fire control panel was not properly located, situated within a school office instead of at the front door. These and other major safety violations delayed firefighter response time, created hazardous conditions in the school and exposed more than 3,500 students, staff and visitors to significant risk in a school notorious for having burned to the ground in the late sixties.

“The District has been very fortunate that the deficiencies with the existing system have not led to any tragedies,” warned the school district’s architect of record in a March 2014 letter. “Especially, given the lack of smoke and fire detectors in the attics and towers.”

On August 15, 2008, the South Tower at New Rochelle High School was set on fire by lightning. In June 2014, John Quinn was fired as Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration by the New Rochelle Board of Education. This article, eight years in the making, tells how one event led to the other; how a lightning bolt crashing into a pinnacle atop the local high school knocked one of the highest paid public figures in New Rochelle off his perch some six years later.

Scaffolding was still in place where work was being done to repair the North Tower from a Summer 2007 lightning strike, when the 2008 strike occurred. Both lightning strikes caused significant fire damage to the school. The District responded after each incident by praising itself for its response to the fires, later expanding on the self-congratulations by holding an awards ceremony that included school and city employees.

Talk of the Sound raised doubts at the time, asking for “some assurance that the same geniuses who were responsible for checking the safety of these tower structures in the past are not the same geniuses checking them now.”

Sadly, this was not the case – it was the same “geniuses” checking.

It has taken eight years for the truth to emerge: the cascading series of failures that preceded the two lightning strike incidents, the cover up at the time and the subsequent failure to address serious safety issues that were left unaddressed for the following seven years. Some fire safety issues exposed that day are still not entirely resolved.

Few know that for many years large sections of the high school were left “uncovered” by the high school fire alarm system including the gymnasium, the swimming pool, sections of the new wing and the attic, including the attic space above the two towers that caught fire in 2007 and 2008. This despite the fact almost the entire Guilbert & Betelle structure burned to the ground in 1968.

Based on persistent investigation over the years, Talk of the Sound can now report exclusively, for the first time, the district’s dirty little secret about the twin lightning strike fires; that no fire alarm sounded during either lightning strike fires because there were no fire alarm sensors in the areas which became engulfed in flame.

The fires should not have happened at all. The pinnacles of the two towers were never grounded, so that 200,000 to 500,000 volts of electricity was sent directly into the wood frame structure, igniting it instantly. When it did happen, there was no warning from the school’s fire alarm system.

Two weeks after the fire, Assistant Superintendent John Quinn, released a memo to the board, obtained by Talk of the Sound, stating that internal repairs would be complete before the start of the upcoming school year.

“All interior painting, carpeting and reconstruction, including cleaning of duct work, installation replacement, electrical and fire alarm testing will be complete by the first day of school,” Quinn wrote.

Of course, there was no fire alarm system to test in the attic. As a result of the second fire, however, a decision was made to “restore” the existing fire alarm system.

For years, the fire alarm system at New Rochelle High School had been a patchwork of archaic analog lines and equipment connected to digital lines and equipment unable to properly communicate with each other; some sections of the building had no alarms at all while other areas had alarms that were not communicating fully with the fire control panel, some alarms triggered but did not provide location information. In short, the fire alarm system did not cover the entire building and did not function properly in areas that were covered.

The Fire Alarm Control Panel, the controlling component of a Fire Alarm System, “receives information from environmental sensors designed to detect changes associated with fire, monitors their operational integrity and provides for automatic control of equipment, and transmission of information necessary to prepare the facility for fire based on a predetermined sequence. The panel may also supply electrical energy to operate any associated sensor, control, transmitter, or relay.”

Needless to say, a Fire Alarm Control Panel is a critical component of a school’s Fire Protection System, the “brains” of the system. By New York State Law, such systems must be inspected annually and found to be in good working order for a Certificate of Occupancy to be issued by the New York State Education Department Facilities Office. It remains unclear why a “C of O” was issued by NYSED.

Documents obtained by Talk of the Sound under a Freedom of Information indicate that a Request for Proposal for “NRHS Fire Alarm Restoration” was prepared and advertised and that bids were received in late 2008 and early 2009, Talk of the Sound received a copy of a bid summary but no copy of the RFP, the advertisement of the RFP, or the bids submitted by vendors. A number of other existing records were not provided pursuant to our FOIL request. We have re-requested these records.

The Bid Summary dated February 28, 2009 was prepared by Michael Smith of Anthony Pucillo Architect and submitted to the Business Office of the City School District of New Rochelle. The three lowest bidders listed were RLJ Electric ($528,000), Monforte dba A-Perfect Goldman ($535,000) and Lipolis Electric Corp. ($549,000). Each of the three bidders met the minimum bidding requirements.

Other documents obtained by Talk of the Sound show two proposals, one major project costing over $500,000 and a cheaper, scaled down proposal to replace “heads” (smoke and heat detectors) and update the system from analog to digital at a cost of $155,000 (later bumped up to $175,000). Sources familiar with the bidding process say Quinn, looking to save money, proposed the lower figure to the board and submitted the lower cost plan to NYSED.

NYSED Facilities Office can take 6-9 months to approve a proposed project. Somewhere over the course of that process, Quinn learned that NYSED would not accept the District’s plan because it was not comprehensive. Negotiations ensued as Quinn sought what amounted to an exception or waiver to get the plan approved. Meanwhile, Quinn moved forward with the board as if the lower cost plan might be approved (it was not).

On February 9, 2011, Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak signed an “Application For Examination And Approval of Final Plans and Specifications” and a “State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Impact Statement”.  The Smart Growth form sought an exception for the criteria in the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Act with the the justification that “The upgrade of the Fire Alarm System will better help us to protect entire building of potential fires”.

On March 21, 2011, Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn signed a Letter of Intent Form with the NYSED Facilities Office for the “Reconstruction or Renovation” of “Electronic Fire System”. On the same day, NYSED Facilities Office assigned Curt Miller as project manager. The letter was signed by Carl Thurnau, coincidentally, hired last month as the new Facilities Director for the City School District of New Rochelle.

On April 14, 2011, the New Rochelle Board of Education passed a board resolution authorizing a Transfer to Capital Fund for an undisclosed amount for the purpose of appropriating funds for “electronic fire system at New Rochelle High School”. Talk of the Sound believes this one-way transfer to set aside $155,000 to $175,000 for work on the high school fire alarm system.

The New Rochelle Board of Education voted to authorize the New Rochelle High School Fire Alarm Restoration project on May 7, 2011.

On June 28, 2011, Quinn submitted the “Scope of Proposed Project” signed by Organisciak in February 2011 and on September 18, 2011, Quinn submitted the “State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Impact Statement” also signed by Organisciak in February 2011.

From this point, as it became apparent that NYSED would not budge on making an exception, the project stalled because Quinn did not want to go back to the board with the higher figure of $528,000, sources say.

Quinn’s reluctance to tell the board the cost of the project had more than tripled is the reason why, despite the 2009 Bid Summary, the 2011 Project Approval by the School Board, and the 2011 Transfer of Funds to Pay for the Project, the project remained stalled for three more years. Meanwhile the school was not safe.

The project was bid out a second time in 2014. RLJ Electric, the winning bidder from 2009, won the second time. The company had agreed to keep their price the same as their 2009 bid despite increases in equipment costs and prevailing wage costs. As a result of a change order, the final tab rose closer to $550,000 although invoice and payment records indicate that a substantial portion of the invoiced fees have yet to be paid by the District. Regardless, the project still did not move forward.

In a letter to Quinn dated March 21, 2014, Mike Smith, the architect of record on the project, expressed his concerns with the extensive project delays. Given Quinn’s closed-loop approach to dealing with vendors, the administration and the school board, the letter was also provided to a third party who circumvented Quinn so that the letter was brought to the attention of the school board in April or May 2014.

In the letter, the architect warns of serious deficiencies with the Fire Alarm System.

On the subject of the two lightning fires, he observes “It is hard to believe, given the building history, that there are no existing fire alarm devices in the attics”.

In the letter, Smith explains how a Fire Alarm System operates: it is comprised of smoke and heat detectors (“heads”), manual pull-stations, communications wiring, annunciator panels, control panels, alarm devices (horns and strobes), and a central station connection. Somewhat like a telephone, when the detector in a “head” is activated by the presence of smoke or heat, the detector dials the control panel. The control panel recognizes the identification number of the detector and sends a second set of signals out. One signal goes to initiate the alarm devices to warn the building occupants. Another signal is sent to the central station to notify the fire department of the alarm. A final signal is sent to the annunciator panel, which is supposed to be located at the front door, providing information for the fire department, regarding the location of the triggered device.

Smith then explains the deficiencies with the then-current system.

Due to the age of the system at the high school, system portions were no longer communicating and interacting properly, as described above. The “language” utilized by new replacement parts was not compatible with the underlying existing system thus limiting the ability of the system to identify the location of an alarm. When an alarm sounded, the annunciator panel frequently misidentified the location, or did not provide a location at all. When an alarm was triggered, the horns properly sounded, but the fire department would not get information regarding the location of the trouble. 

In the letter, Smith recounts the history of the Fire Alarm System. He describes the existing system in the main part of the building (as opposed to the new wing) as an amalgamation of parts from renovations performed from 1972 through 2006. The control panels and annunciator for the system was largely replaced in 1992. Due to the age of these devices, repairs were being made with devices of limited compatibility with the control and annunciator panels. The alarm system installed in the new wing in 2006, spoke a different “language” than the system in the older portion of the school. This lack of compatibility was due to the evolution of the equipment from analog to digital over the intervening years. A work-around was installed between the new wing addition and the main body of the school that allowed limited information to be shared between the two systems. While this allowed the alarm horns to sound properly, it did not provide the fire department with the location of the fire. In the event of an alarm, the fire department would arrive at the main entrance adjacent to the gym but would not be able to identify the location of the alarm.

The architect recounts how a lower costs solution was developed after the 2008 fire which entailed upgrading horns and strobes and replacing the detectors, pull stations, control panels, and the annunciator panel so that the entire system would be digitally compatible, allowing complete integration and communication.

He goes on to explain that although the New York State Building Code permits partial restoration, NYSED Facilities does not. NYSED requires that if significant alterations are performed, then the entire system must be brought into compliance with the current code requirements.

As noted above, NYSED was unwilling to waive these requirements driving the cost up from $155,000 to $175,000 to $528,000. This is the source of the delays from 2009 and 2011 and why Quinn eventually chose to cancel or suspend the project.

The architect identified numerous “Serious deficiencies” with the New Rochelle Fire Alarm System:

  • No detectors in the attics and towers
  • No duct mounted detectors in the roof top exhaust fans
  • No detectors within the pool space
  • No detectors within the pool maintenance area
  • No pull stations on the roof of the B-Wing (the tennis courts)
  • Manual pull stations not located at all means of exit
  • Annunciator panel installed at wrong locations (in main office not at front door).
  • No fan shut-down relays on the mechanical system fans (in the event of an alarm, the mechanical systems are required to shut down to prevent them from spreading smoke throughout the building)

Smith notes, “All of these items are serious safety deficiencies of the existing system”.

The letter closes with an ominous warning:

“We strongly recommend that you proceed with this work as soon as possible. The District has been very fortunate that the deficiencies with the existing system have not led to any tragedies. Especially, given the lack of smoke and fire detectors in the attics and towers.”

Smith’s warning letter was shared with the school board in executive session. Having learned Quinn had failed to undertake a serious safety project that they had approved and funded three years earlier, his remaining support on the board evaporated. Board members were visibly angry after the meeting. In June 2014, retiring, long-time board member Diedre Polow noted emphatically in her farewell remarks “mistakes were made.” Within about a  month of that meeting, Quinn was informed that his contract would not be renewed.

Made aware of the Fire Alarm System issues at the high school in January 2015, incoming Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration, Jeff White expedited completion of the project so that the work was substantially completed in October 2015. There remains a handful of open items including adding new sensors to the gymnaisum.


Manual for New York State Public School Facility Fire Safety Inspections (Revised May 2016)

19 NYCRR Part 1225, Fire Code

19 NYCRR Part 1226, Property Maintenance Code

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