Portland High School fire alarm system failing, outdated

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PORTLAND — The fire alarm system in the city’s oldest school is obsolete, but still operational for the time being.

Replacement of the Portland High School system at a cost of $150,000 is included in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan for the next fiscal year.

Doug Sherwood, facilities coordinator for the School Department, said replacement parts for the system, which was installed in the 1990s, are no longer being manufactured.

“We have antiquated equipment, it’s still functioning, still doing as it was originally intended to do, but parts and pieces are failing and if we can’t get parts and pieces replaced we want to be proactive in upgrading the system itself,” Sherwood said.

Sherwood said the mother board on the main panel failed last April, which meant the system was down for a day. That required someone to be in the building from midnight to 5:30 a.m., on a fire watch. He said typically the building is staffed from 5:30 a.m. until midnight.

In that instance, Sherwood said, the department had to find a replacement part on eBay and have it overnighted to Portland.

“Whenever you start your search you start at the local distributors,” Craig Worth, the department’s deputy chief of operations, said. “If they don’t have it, your search gets larger and larger, and when you do eBay, it’s a large search.”

Sherwood said the system’s entire main panel needs to be replaced, which means infrastructure must be upgraded, including all the wiring and fire alarm devices.

Sherwood and Worth, and school Principal Deborah Migneault, said while the alarm system is old, it is still functioning as it should be. Sherwood said the concern is finding replacement parts as the need arises.

“It’s just an older system that simply needs to be replaced because the parts are not manufactured anymore,” Migneault said.

Migneault said the most visible problem has been that during fire drills school personnel have sometimes been unable to manually shut the alarm off, so the Fire Department has had to be called.

“The system’s not in imminent danger, it’s functioning fine,” Worth said. “But there’s a long-range realization that we can’t keep it going forever.”

The CIP proposes borrowing $150,000 to replace the system. Sherwood said that is just a ballpark estimate, and that the actual cost won’t be known until designs are finalized and contractors provide their estimates. He said other rewiring projects have been done in the Cumberland Avenue building, so they have some “general experience” with pathways and connections.

“We’re pretty confident that the number will hold, but again it’s the market place that drives the price,” Sherwood said.

Worth said next year’s budget “is only four months away,” and that he doesn’t see any significant risk of the system failing.

He said he assumes the School Department will be able to more forward with the rewiring after the school year ends.

“I think everybody we’ve dealt with, people in the field, feel this is the right time to replace it,” Worth said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.