Alexandria, VA

(Updated 8:50 p.m.) A series of fire alarms at George Washington Middle School has reignited outcry from parents who say more needs to be done to modernize the school.

Not only did the fire alarms go off several times in November at the school, but during one incident where there was a fire — when a poster was set on fire on Nov. 14 but was quickly extinguished — concerns were raised that no alarm went off.

Also, on Nov. 21, the school was evacuated due to the smell of gas. The fire alarm went off during that incident, but firefighters had trouble turning the alarm off, according to scanner traffic.

At a school board meeting last week, parent Kevin Jahns raised the issue of the fire alarms, saying that it seemed like the alarms went off at times when there wasn’t a fire but when there was one, later on, some of the alarms didn’t go off. Concerns about the fire system were repeated throughout the meeting.

“If the fire alarms don’t work in the building, don’t send children to the school,” said one parent. “It’s that simple.”

But Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said some of the concerns are the result of a misunderstanding about how fire alarms in schools work.

“There are no smoke detectors in [classrooms],” Hutchings explained. “The [fire] code for a school is very different than codes for a home.”

Hutchings said the parameters for what sets off an alarm at home are geared towards monitoring areas where there are no people, which he said is not a concern in a school where there are more people in the building.

However, Hutchings did admit that during tests done at the school some alarm systems were found to be inoperable.

“On Nov. 11, [we] did determine that there were some bells in the school for a fire alarm that were not ringing,” Hutchings said.

Jamie Bartlett, director of safety and security for Alexandria City Public Schools, said the alarm system was fixed after they became aware there was a problem. The cause of the alarm, Bartlett said, was a gas smell created as the building switched from air conditioning to heat.

Staff at the meeting also insisted that, despite parent concerns, George Washington has never been deemed unsafe. An update released on Nov. 25 said the issues related to the alarm have been fixed and the school passed an inspection from the Alexandria City Fire Marshal.

We understand that while these repairs resolve the immediate issues, ACPS is committed to continuing our work on long-term upgrades to George Washington. Both the Fire Marshal and the fire and life safety consultant agree that the fire alarm system and related infrastructure for George Washington Middle School is in need of modernizing. We will keep you informed about these next steps as soon as we have information to share.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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