Incensed by the lack of a fire alarm system at PS 207 in Howard Beach, parents and an area legislator are pleading with the city to correct a situation they say could be a disaster waiting to happen.
The fire alarm system at PS 207, which serves about 900 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, was wiped out in Hurricane Sandy. Once the school reopened in January, the city Department of Education stationed 12 “fire watchmen” at the school, who are tasked with keeping an eye out for smoke or flames and for whom the city pays $13,000 each week.
Parents and Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said they are extremely concerned that the current system poses serious safety risks to the students and teachers – as well as everyone else in the building – because they said the individuals may not be able to evacuate the school as quickly as they would with a functioning fire alarm system.
“If you really think about it, it makes you crazy and you just pray to God nothing happens,” said Vita Leone, vice president of the PS 207 Parent Association. “It’s very upsetting because we don’t know when there’s going to be a new fire alarm.”
After receiving numerous complaints from worried parents, Ulrich penned a letter on July 19 to schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and School Construction Authority President Lorraine Grillo and urged them to expedite the installation of a new fire alarm system. He noted in the letter that the SCA has informed him that there are “no plans to begin work on replacing the system until FEMA issues the funds for replacement” – something for which there is no time table. When the money does come in, the councilman said the installation of a new system is likely to take more than a year.
“Obviously, they are worried about sending their children to a school with inadequate fire safety precautions,” Ulrich wrote in reference to PS 207 parents. “It is simply inexcusable to expect another school year to pass with no fire alarm system in the school.
“With all that my constituents have going on while they try to rebuild from Hurricane Sandy, they should at least have the peace of mind the school their child attends has a functional fire alarm system,” he concluded in the letter.
A city DOE spokeswoman said the “use of fire watch is an acceptable practice and the school is safe.”
“The cost associated with a replacement for the fire alarm is under review for reimbursement by FEMA,” the spokeswoman said in an email. “We will be able to provide more information once the review is completed.”
Ulrich also slammed the DOE for spending $13,000 each week on the fire watchmen.
“It’s a huge waste of the taxpayers’ money, and in the long run will actually cost more than the installation of a new fire alarm system,” Ulrich said. “I’m outraged.”
Nina DeBlasio, the parent coordinator at PS 207, said that because of the fire alarm situation, the school cannot hold the many after-school and weekend activities it once did.
“Security is our number one concern, and without a fire alarm I don’t feel comfortable having kids in the building at night time,” DeBlasio said.
“I wouldn’t sleep one night without my fire alarm – why are we in a school with 900 kids with that?” DeBlasio added.
Under the fire watchmen system, the watchmen, should they smell smoke or see flames, would have to run to the main office and alert them to the problem. Someone at the main office would then make an announcement that people should leave the building.
“We’d have to do all of that instead of just pulling a switch that alerts the fire department,” DeBlasio said. “The city is paying this company to be in our school in case they smell smoke because they can’t put you in a building and say you’re on your own in a fire – but, in retrospect, we are on our own.”