After Six Months of Promises on School Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Fire at New Rochelle High School Lays Bare Hollow Rhetoric

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As long time readers know, I have been writing about the appalling state of school safety and emergency preparedness for years. The board and administration have largely ignored the warnings.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, more parents were listening and pressure mounted for school officials to take matters more seriously. Long dormant safety committees were dusted off and re-established. A security consulting firm was hired to conduct a long overdue security audit, something I have been advocating for years. There was a recent hearing on the new district-wide safety plan. Two people spoke at the hearing -- me and Amy Ecker. Apparently people are just not that interested. There was been a great deal of accompanying lip-service about improving school communications generally and within the context of emergency communications such as Hurricane Sandy where the district was largely silent throughout the crisis which went on for more than a week.

In the middle of all this, there was a fire incident in January where two wheel-chair bound students were not evacuated leading to an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice. The incident involved smoldering electrical cables in an electrical vault in the ground, in front of the main entrance on Clove Road near Otsego Avenue.

I live not far from New Rochelle High School where my son is a student. I monitor the emergency responder frequencies with a scanner as part of covering New Rochelle for Talk of the Sound. I later filed a joint report from the scene with James O'Toole who monitored the scanner traffic while I observed from the scene and took photographs.

Given my proximity and strong personal interest in the safety of students at the high school, it was not long after the dispatcher for the New Rochelle Fire Department put out a call of smoke at the school that I was on scene. By the time I got there, students had been evacuated from the building and were milling about on the fields between the high school and the lakes near North Avenue. Firefighters were just arriving, the scene had yet to be cordoned off. A steady rain was falling.

NRHS Manhole Fire 776I went directly to the area where smoke had been reported, the main entrance on Clove Road near Otsego Avenue -- the same location of the fire in January. I observed a small amount of blackish-brown smoke emanating from four small holes in a manhole cover. As I took photos, Assistant Principal Joseph Starvaggi motioned for me to move away. He told me that they were concerned the manhole cover might blow off. I moved back.

I was on scene throughout the incident -- about two hours.

After I posted my story about the fire I contacted New Rochelle Board of Education President Chrisanne Petrone, Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak and the rest of the school board to report some noticeable problems with the school response.

1. Despite a fully engaged electrical fire, students were brought back into the building. There is an off-site location for evacuations away from school grounds if needed. That plan was not activated.

2. Quite a few of those students were directed to the Whitney Auditorium which is in relatively close proximity to the electrical vault which was the location of the fire. Others were sent to the gymnasium, others to the cafeteria at the new wing.

3. The students were in the Whitney Auditorium when, at about 11:15 am, there was an explosion in the vault. That explosion sent a massive jet of flame -- about 30 feet high, a thick jet of flame the size of the manhole opening. I was standing 50 feet away taking photos and I will tell you it was startling to say the least.

4. According to NRFD, the explosion destroyed the feeder cables that supply power to the school. My son and his friends were in the Whitney Auditorium. They told me that the entire auditorium was plunged into complete darkness. No emergency lights came on. Fortunately, students solved the problem themselves with many activating the flashes on their smartphones so they and other students could see as they exited the auditorium. So A+ for the kids and an F- for the adults.

5, Moments after the explosion, dozens of students were allowed to walk down Clove Road from the direction of the football field through heavy smoke within 10-15 feet of the open manhole. The fire continued to burn.

6. Where I was, near the Whitney Auditorium I observed a very haphazard notification to students of early dismissal as students wandered away from the campus and out into the streets filled with emergency vehicles.

From what I saw, there was not a great deal of evidence that a coherent plan was being followed. Bringing students back into the building with an involved electrical fire that was getting WORSE not better strikes me as contrary to basic safety protocol. Staff was not on hand with school security flashlights. Emergency lighting or emergency generators did not provide power or lighting after the explosion cut power to the building.

After six months of hearing how school safety issues are being addressed or how the district has always been largely in compliance with the SAVE Law, this appeared to be another failure for the building level safety plan at NRHS. In this case, my child among many others we placed at risk especially with regards to hundreds of students, already wet, angry and excited herded into an auditorium with no emergency lighting or power from back up generators.

I was taking pictures and shared them with the board:

This photo was taken at 10:38 a.m.. Firefighters were just setting up.

NRHS Manhole Fire 773

This photo was taken at 11:08 a.m. The manhole cover has been removed and the first, now getting oxygen, is getting worse. Students who were evacuated are now in the auditorium immediately to the right.

NRHS Manhole Fire 774

This photo was taken at 11:11 am. Unfortunately I did not get a photo of the flames (New 12 told me they did so I will be watching when they air their video later today). The two guys in yellow gear are Con Ed workers. Within seconds of this photo being taken is when the flame shot out of the whole. As you can see they were only a few feet away. They both jumped back when explosion occurred and flames shot out of the vault through the manhole.

I have since obtained an image:

NRHS Manhole Fire 784

Here is a looping video of the explosion and the 2 Con Ed workers reacting (mine was similar to the guy who jumped which is why I do not have a photo)

This next photo was taken at 11:14 a.m., looking down Clove Road towards the football field. As you can see, the streets are choked with an acrid some from the burning wires and the exploded transformers (some of which can contain very dangerous compounds; transformers older than 30 years can contain PCBs).

NRHS Manhole Fire 777

The next four photos were taken from 11:17 a.m. to 11:18 a.m.

NRHS Manhole Fire 782

NRHS Manhole Fire 775

NRHS Manhole Fire 780

NRHS Manhole Fire 779

I think these photos speak for themselves but to be clear, three minutes after a significant explosion that shot a large fireball out of the manhole you have two dozen students wandering through an active fire scene with 10 to 15 feet of the source of the fire, moments after an explosion occurred.

I spoke at length to Allan Drury of Con Edison about this incident. Drury confirmed -- and I asked several times in several ways -- that the equipment that failed at the high school is equipment owned by the school district.

Con Edison Says School District Equipment Caused Fire at New Rochelle High School

Throughout the weekend, the district sent out robocalls and text messages and posted updates to their own web site to the effect that the power was still out, the school was still closed and they were working to get a generator installed. That generator was in place by Monday morning so that school opened.

Generator NRHS 1

Not explained is why there was no generator in the first place. There has been a similar issue at Isaac E. Young Middle School. There is a generator but it has not worked for many years.

Meanwhile, pursuing an unrelated story, I found that emails to school officials, going to what is referred to as the "k12" or "groupwise" email service, were coming back to me as "delayed". I was informed by board president Chrisanne Petrone that those emails were delayed because the "nred.org" server is at the high school and there was no power. I pointed out to her that the emails were bouncing back from the k12/groupwise email system. She corrected herself, that is the k12/groupwise email system that was on a server at the high school. I wrote back:

I just got a bunch more delayed messages from the k12 account so what you just said makes sense.

What does not make sense is why there is no generator power at NRHS, why there was no emergency lights in the auditorium, why students were brought back into a building with a fully engaged fire going on, etc.

Also, why the k12 email used by your most senior administrators is so vulnerable and that you even have 2 separate email systems. Whatever the justification it should now be apparent this is unwise, more so that it is hosted on servers so vulnerable to power outages.

My understanding is that the k12 email, the legacy system, remains more for ego reasons and perhaps anti-transparency reasons than sound IT practice. It has caused communications issues in the past and is causing them again.

I am familiar with this stuff. I would advise you to ignore whatever baloney is offered and have the board direct the administration to standardize on NRED which is, as I understand it, a hosted email service run out of a proper data facility with redundant backups and redundant power supplies.

Had this been done when NRED first came online years ago (as should have obviously been the case) quite a few problems could have been avoided including the current problems. Of course, it would not be so easy to delete all records of emails which I suspect may have something to do with this.

It is hard not to conclude that whatever claims have been made about school safety and emergency preparedness have been made, when actually emergencies occur the district response is a fail. The only bright spot seemed to be the communication to parents via web, text, and phone.

BTW, the other story was this one: HERE WE GO AGAIN: Incoming Barnard Principal Was Forced to Resign Previous Position Due to Expired Administrative Certificate

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

Brian Sussman on Tue, 06/18/2013 - 00:38

When NRHS burned down in May 1968, the old theater was destroyed, even though the fire began on the opposite side of the building. The Whitney Young Auditorium was built in the same location, as its replacement.

Theaters are among the most dangerous places to be in a fire.

During the June 2013 fire, it was reckless and irrational for the administration of NRHS to send students to the Whitney Young Auditorium. There was absolutely no excuse for students to be sent there, especially considering that the previous auditorium had completely burned down.

Bob McCaffrey on Tue, 06/18/2013 - 15:24

Brian,
I remember that fire very well. Ashes the size of garbage can covers were landing on my front lawn. Several firefighters were hurt that day also from what I remember. They pumped water out of the lakes when pressure supply dropped. I wonder if we could handle a fire there in the same way today. We probably have less manpower today than back then. We have water main breaks throughout the city on an ongoing basis. The school has probably doubled in size.

I would love to see a comparison of manpower levels today 2013 compared to back in 1968 the year of the fire. What were the manpower, staffing and management levels of the Fire Department, Police Department, City Hall, The City of New Rochelle and The New Rochelle Board of Education? Compare them and keep in mind the school has probably doubled in size. Our taxes even more so!

Wake-Up, Do something before someone gets killed!

Brian Sussman on Wed, 06/19/2013 - 07:27

Good questions Bob McC.

I believe the NRFD probably now has less personnel and vehicles than in 1968. Back then, all the current fire stations existed, but there was an additional one on North Ave near Mill Rd. I believe that in 2013, the fire stations at Drake Ave & Webster Ave have less vehicles and personnel than in 1968.

I believe that, although NRHS has several buildings that had not existed in 1968, there are currently less students in its four grades of 9th thru 12th, than NRHS had in 1968 with three grades from 10th thru 12th. Furthermore, due to the additional buildings, the students are spread over a larger area, making things a bit safer for them. Also, whereas the original building was opened in 1926, and then rebuilt after the 1968 fire, NRHS probably meets modern fire code requirements far better than in 1968. Much of the problem in 1968, once the fire department arrived, was due to wooden rafters in a roof covered by slate shingles.

The main problem in 1968, was that although the closest fire station was one half block away from NRHS, the fire department didn't bother to arrive until about 15-20 minutes after the alarms went off. Rightly or wrongly, the students blamed NRHS Principal Adolf Panitz for failing to call the NRFD to confirm it wasn't a false alarm.

I think the NRFD is far more competent in 2013, than in the 1950-60's, as the NRFD also was late getting to a 1958 fire at my grandfather's drycleaning business 'Stanley Stores', at 68 Drake Ave, despite the fire station being located nearby on Drake Ave. It was a disaster for my family, as the insurance company had gone out of business, and the dry cleaning plant (and the clothing within) were destroyed. I'd probably be a millionaire right now if it hadn't been for that 1958 fire.

You can bet I am very sensitive to the needs of the NRFD as well as to the safety of students.

Even if the NRFD has less staff, we now have 911 to call. Hopefully, in 2013, the residents of NR's 10583 zipcode realize that its the NRFD that serve them, because in the 1950-60's there were fools who would call the Scarsdale volunteer FD, and their homes would burn down before Scarsdale contacted the NRFD. 911 probably helps in those situations.

Regarding the NRPD, I think there are more than enough of them to do everything necessary in NR. 911 probably requires less police than what was needed 40 years ago. But I would like to see more foot patrols downtown. If anything, NR should eliminate some of the overly-paid administrative positions in the NRPD, to cut costs.

There are probably now, a lot less students in the NR School system than in the 1960's. Back then, the Baby Boom was filling the schools, causing double session in the late 1950's at Davis and Roosevelt Schools, until Ward was opened, I believe in 1959. NRHS had double session the whole time I attended (1966-69), as well as for some years before and after. The NRHS double session was supposed to end for my Senior year of 1968-69, but was prolonged due to the 1968 fire.

Throughout my NR public school attendance, there was a shortage of teachers, as well as classrooms, resulting in overly-crowded classes. However, the students received excellent educations. I presume that NR public schools are still superior to most public or private schools.

No doubt, there are too many administrators in the NR public school system. I'd rather see that money go to the teachers and to technology benefitting the students, rather than to administrators.

City Hall, as a whole, probably has less staff than in the 1960's. There used to be many departments and inspectors at City Hall that eventually moved to the County government, such as the NR's Board of Health, and the Sealer of Weights and Measures, and no doubt many other positions. Additionally, because of computerization, a lot less clerical staff would be needed in 2013, compared to the 1960's, let alone earlier times.

Bob McCaffrey on Wed, 06/12/2013 - 13:22

Bob,
I was not aware there was a recent hearing on the new district-wide safety plan. Had I known, I would have tried to be there. Communication is one thing that is very poor at best and lacks consistency with in The Board of Education, The School System and The City of New Rochelle. I spoke of this last night at CTBH about the need to move both in to the year 2013. We have so much available to us yet we don’t know enough. Poor timing, poor planning and poor judgment, I was planning on speaking on June 25th at the C.O.W. Meeting on this topic. Everything that happens in New Rochelle seems to be scheduled on the same Tuesdays of the month at the same time.

There needs to be better and more open communication!

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