New school lacked fire safeguard At Park Elementary, water tanks make up for missing pipe link

Hook-up to line is pending

Construction unit has drawn criticism for poor planning

September 11, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The new Park Elementary School opened two weeks ago with a ribbon cutting and speeches and two huge water tanks parked next door to provide the emergency fire protection the building's internal system could not.

Anne Arundel school and fire officials acknowledged yesterday that the new $10.6 million building was not connected to a large enough water line to qualify for an occupancy permit in time for opening day.

Only after the two 3,000-gallon tanks were placed in the Brooklyn Park public library parking lot was the school given a temporary permit -- the day before the ribbon-cutting and two days before students arrived.

"We made them go out of their way and provide those tanks," said Capt. Michael H. Sims, in charge of reviewing building plans in the county fire marshal's office. "What would happen if a child got killed or a teacher or whoever, during a fire?"

Fire and school officials said the arrangement does not compromise safety in the school or Brooklyn Park community, where Baltimore-owned water lines have notoriously poor flow.

A water pipe for fire protection must meet two flow and pressure requirements: It must be able to supply the sprinkler system for a building, but at the same time provide enough water to firefighters' hoses without decreasing the amount of water in the sprinkler system. An 8-inch pipe on the Park property could do one or the other but not both.

Records show the school system knew in January that it needed to tie into a 12-inch pipe on Ritchie Highway, about 1,400 feet away, said Sims.

But the hook-up was not made.

Fire officials said the problem of insufficient water did not come to light until their inspection on Aug. 23, the Friday before school was to open.

During their walk through, fire inspectors, who were ensuring there was no debris in the sprinkler water pipes, learned the hook-up was not to the 12-inch line, but the smaller one. A scramble that afternoon and over the weekend resulted in the agreement that the school system would provide tanks in return for the temporary occupancy permit.

"I do not think it was entirely the fault of our planning and construction people," said Joseph H. Foster, school board president. "It was one of those things that became a problem and had to have a temporary solution."

The Park situation is the latest in a year in which the school construction program has been criticized for poor planning, design flaws and inaccurate cost estimates. County Executive John G. Gary said last fall if the school board did not improve its construction procedures in a year, he would seek to take it over. While criticizing flaws in the department and praising its changes, a consultant's report last month said the construction office did not have nearly enough staff for its duties.

Ralph A. Luther, school facilities chief, said the fire department knew this summer the school system was having a serious problem finding the 12-inch water line beneath Ritchie Highway. Locating utility lines in older areas often is difficult because over

the years roads are widened and maps become outdated.

"The contractor dug a pit to confirm that is where the line was. We found out it was not a 12-inch water line but a 10-inch gas line there," he said.

Luther said the 12-inch main has since been located and the pipe should be connected this month.

No mention of the glitch was made in a construction status report given to the school board for its Sept. 4 meeting. Rodell Phaire, director of school planning and construction, said he didn't include it because the problem had been resolved by then.

The process of replacing Park Elementary, built in 1943, has hit numerous snags.

Its design was based on the plans for Solley Elementary, which had so many architectural flaws the school system had to hire a second architect to redraw the blueprints.

School officials originally timed the new Park to coincide with the opening of a Brooklyn Park Middle School, so that sixth-graders would no longer be housed at the lower school. But the middle school project has been stalled by county government opposition and questions concerning need.

In addition, Park was conceived of as a 600-student school. But at a school board budget workshop last October, Phaire said the school system had enough money for just a 450-student facility. Specialty rooms are being used as regular classrooms.

Even with that adjustment, Park cost about $910,000 more than initially estimated.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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