Insufficient Fire Alarms in Numerous Hawaii Schools: A Troubling Situation

The fire alarm system at Konawaena Elementary school on the Hawaii island has been broken since November 2019 and has not been replaced yet, according to Val Kalahiki, who runs the after-school program at the school. In case of a fire, the main office uses the loudspeaker system to inform students and teachers. However, after the main office closes, Kalahiki has to be extra vigilant as she oversees 130 students in the after-school program. Kalahiki expressed her concern about the state’s allocation of funds and questioned why the safety of the children cannot be ensured.

According to estimates from the Department of Education, there are over two dozen schools in Hawaii that do not have a working fire alarm system. The need for school fire safety has become more urgent following the Maui wildfires in August that resulted in 99 fatalities and the destruction of over 2,200 structures, including King Kamehameha III Elementary in Lahaina.

In response to the Lahaina fires, the state House Schools Working Group released a draft report recommending better measures to protect students and schools from fire. The recommendations included updating fire sprinkler systems and making evacuation plans more accessible to the public.

Prior to the Maui fires, some schools had been waiting for years to have their broken fire alarm systems repaired. In a House education committee hearing in March, Curt Otaguro, the deputy superintendent of the Department of Education, stated that 12% of Hawaii schools had alarm systems in critical condition, which he deemed unacceptable. Currently, the Department of Education has 28 fire alarm systems in need of repairs out of over 250 public schools.

Randall Tanaka, the assistant superintendent for the office of facilities and operations, acknowledged that repairs have been made to some systems since the spring. However, larger repairs require more time as they involve updates to the schools’ electrical wiring systems. Tanaka emphasized that ensuring fire safety in schools is a high priority for the department.

Many of Hawaii’s public schools are over 100 years old and lack modern fire suppression systems, such as automatic fire sprinklers and fire alarms, making them more vulnerable to fires, according to the House Schools Working Group’s draft report.

The House has scheduled a public hearing on Thursday to gather feedback on the schools working group’s findings, including the issue of fire safety in schools. The Department of Education is currently reviewing the report and plans to submit testimony by Thursday.

County fire departments conduct yearly inspections on schools, and working fire alarm systems are a requirement for passing these inspections, as stated by Parrish Purdy, captain of the fire prevention bureau for Maui County. In the 2022-23 school year, 90% of the Department of Education schools passed their fire inspections.

However, for schools with broken alarm systems, it can take several years to receive replacements or repairs. Schools on fire watch rely on teachers and staff to notify the school administration and fire department if they notice signs of a potential fire. Fire watch is not intended to be a long-term solution.

Konawaena Elementary’s fire alarm system has been broken since November 2019, even after an electrical fire occurred in 2021. (Courtesy: Val Kalahiki)

For example, as of 2017, King Intermediate School on Oahu had been without a working fire alarm system for seven years, as acknowledged by the Department of Education. In the absence of a functioning fire alarm system, schools must be on fire watch, where teachers and staff members are responsible for reporting potential fires to the administration and fire department. Anika Agerlie, a second-grade teacher, expressed her concern about the prolonged duration of being on fire watch and the potential risks it poses.

Representative Jeanne Kapela, who previously represented the district including Konawaena Elementary, introduced and passed House Resolution 55 in the 2023 legislative session. The resolution requested the Department of Education to provide a list of schools with broken fire alarms and a timeline for repairs. However, the House Education Committee has not received the list from the DOE yet.

Kapela plans to introduce a bill next year to allocate funding for fixing schools’ fire alarm systems. The Department of Education estimated that it would need $10 million per year for the next five years to complete the repairs. According to Kapela, there is no alternative to having a working fire alarm in schools.

Despite efforts to repair fire alarm systems, delays have been caused by a shortage of companies able to perform the necessary repairs, according to Randall Tanaka. To enhance school safety, the Department of Education has been working on perimeter maintenance and collaborating with the Department of Transportation to clear grass and dry brush surrounding schools. They have also been evaluating emergency access routes and ensuring fire-safe infrastructures in new school projects.

The School Facilities Authority is working with the National Council on School Facilities and the Environmental Protection Agency to prioritize fire safety in school construction and renovation projects. The goal is to build the safest schools possible, taking into account the recommendations for fire-resistant building materials provided by the EPA.