School buildings undergoing fire alarm system upgrades

Wrangell High School and Stikine Middle School are going through an alarming upgrade, quite literally.

Both buildings, including the high school gym and the Parks and Recreation's pool facility, are getting a new fire alarm system that will help pinpoint any smoke or fires, helping emergency responders act quicker.

Current fire codes dictated replacement of the old system, especially since the schools sometimes house visiting sports teams or other students and teaching staff, according to Josh Blatchley, the school district's director of maintenance.

"Once you start housing people overnight in rooms, there are different requirements that need to be met as far as fire codes are concerned," he said. The previous system didn't have smoke detectors in the rooms being used for housing visiting students.

The old system also didn't connect to a third-party or local monitoring system and didn't provide accurate information via electronic informational "annunciator" panels at the main building exits. If an alarm went off or the sprinkler system was activated, outside alarms would sound, relying on anyone nearby to alert authorities.

"The old system was not calling out to notify anybody," Blatchley explained. "The phone lines weren't fun to the old system. It was 'unsupervised' is how you would refer to it."

A crew with Sitka Electric is currently working in the high school to complete the upgrades, having started in the middle school. They will next move into the high school gym and then down to the swimming pool facility. The work is happening at the same time Blatchley's team is cleaning rooms and making fixes to prepare for the start of school in late August.

Alarm upgrades are on schedule to be completed about the same time, he said.

According to Amber Al-Haddad, the borough's capital facilities director, Sitka Electric was the lowest of two bidders, at $665,000.

In addition to a $494,734 community development state grant, the borough is providing $303,750, she said. Additional costs include construction administration and inspection services by Morris Engineering.

Though the smoke detectors and alarm system can't trigger the sprinkler system, the sprinkler system can trigger the new alarm system, Blatchley said.

"The alarm system will also be able to monitor tamper control switches on the sprinkler system, so if a valve inadvertently gets closed or if there is a low pressure that might indicate a false trip for the sprinklers, the alarm system will notify somebody that those are occurring and then you might be able to remedy the situation before it gets worse," he said.

All of the old notification devices, the horns and strobe lights, will be replaced. New heat detectors are being installed, as are new pull stations, the little red boxes someone can activate if they see a fire emergency. Those boxes weren't at the correct code height.

Instead of the blaring sounds of the previous system, a voice will alert students and staff in the case of an emergency, and ceiling-mounted lights will direct them to the nearest main exit.

The old control panel is being replaced with an entirely new panel, where the alarm system and phone lines will be tied in, allowing each alarm device to communicate individually, which will provide a more accurate location of any incident. It also allows staff to test the system to make sure each device is functioning properly.

Outside annunciator panels will also provide more accurate information for firefighters, helping them locate where the problem lies rather than having to possibly search all the structures.

Upgrades to the alarm system were also necessary so that the new high school elevator could be installed. That project was put on hold in 2021 when it was discovered that a new alarm system wouldn't work with the existing elevator.

"The system we (have) would not accept a new fire alarm system tied into it," Blatchley said. "It would not do what it was supposed to do. When this new system is in, there will be a place to plug in the new elevator when that happens. I'm not sure of the timeframe when that will be complete but we're getting closer."

Right now, the push is to have Sitka Electric's crew finished in the gym by the end of July, when the floor needs to be resurfaced.

While all the work is being done, Blatchley said, the only area with working fire alarms is the pool.

"The pool, since it's occupied throughout the day with patrons, that fire alarm is on a temporary system that is tied into a third-party monitoring system," he said. Once everything is complete, every facility will "be tied back to the main fire alarm panel."


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