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Volunteer High School on alert until new sprinkler system installed

Jeff Bobo • Feb 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

CHURCH HILL — Volunteer High School has been on “fire watch” as per state fire marshal instructions for the past three weeks, but it’s not as scary as it sounds.

All that means is that a school staff member must walk the school hallways at least once an hour to confirm that it’s not on fire until a new fire alarm and sprinkler system is installed.

It’s the cost of getting off the “fire watch” that’s going to be scary for the Board of Education when it has to dig out $85,000 from general fund reserves.

Both main Hawkins County high schools — VHS in Church Hill and Cherokee High School near Rogersville — are approaching 30 years of age.

It’s no secret that both schools were built without sprinkler systems. Phase three of the county system’s school building program includes a 12-classroom addition at both main high schools, as well as the mandatory installation of sprinkler systems in both original high school buildings.

The new sprinkler system cost was included in original plans and the $38 million bond issuance for the overall five-school Phase Three project.

Hawkins County School buildings supervisor Jim Hageman told the Times-News Sunday, however, that around three weeks ago while work was continuing on the Volunteer addition, it was discovered that the existing fire alarm system won’t be compatible with the modern sprinkler system being installed.

“The fire alarm in the new building has to be synchronized with the older building, and when they started working with the older building they found out some of that was not going to work,” Hageman said. “We called the fire marshal in, and what we discovered was that (the VHS alarm system) was not going to work and had to be replaced. So, the fire marshal, along with (Church Hill Fire Chief) David Wood came up with a plan we could use until we get the old system replaced.

“What we’re under is a ‘fire watch’ which involves a collaborative effort between the principals, fire department and the SRO (school resource officer). Basically we have to have someone walking the halls once every hour and log in that there’s no problem.”

Hageman added that the fire department is in constant radio communication with school officials. Church Hill’s fire department substation is also within sight of the high school.

Hageman said the existing fire alarm system at Cherokee High School didn’t have that problem and will be compatible with the new sprinkler system.

The new sprinkler systems will be installed at both high schools and their additions this summer, Hageman added. The old fire alarm system will stay in operation until the new system is installed.

School officials considered upgrading the existing VHS system, but Hageman said an upgrade still wouldn’t modernize the system and ensure that it would pass the annual fire marshal inspection.

“We couldn’t depend on it, so it’s cheaper just to replace it while we’re doing all this at one time,” Hageman said.

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