Without fire alarms, Oakland college pays security guards to watch for flames

The Peralta Community College District in Oakland has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars this year for guards to patrol one of its campuses in case a fire breaks out, because its fire alarm system is in disrepair. But 2 Investigates discovered the "fire watch" guards at Laney College appear to spend much of their time lounging around, smoking and looking at their phones.

Laney College near Lake Merritt, was placed on Fire Watch by the Oakland Fire Department because a January routine inspection found "critical deficiencies" including failing alarm panels, blocked fire exits, and unauthorized electricity lines.

The college is one of four East Bay schools in the Peralta Community College District that has recently been criticized by teachers, staff, and students for lack of safety precautions and poor facility management.

Documents show the fire code violations and safety hazards at Laney have gone unfixed for more than six months. In fact, the district has paid at least $350,000 to date for guards who are supposed to be walking the campus -- checking every building, every 30 minutes, during every day -- just to make sure nothing catches fire.

However, on multiple visits to the campus 2 Investigates witnessed them sitting and talking with one another, texting, smoking cigarettes and lounging around. The guards are employed by ABC Security Service Inc. and the general manager has not responded to KTVU's questions about his employees and company practices as of the time of publication.

Meanwhile, teachers, students, and staff said they are frustrated by the lack of maintenance and accountability.

"We haven't seen a lot of progress in getting these problems solved," Peralta Federation of Teachers President Jennifer Shanoski said. "There are still notifications on the buildings saying that Fire Watch is still happening."

Despite the guards on campus, a fire report shows there was a "catastrophic failure" of the electrical system in late March. Police and fire officials said alarms may have sounded but with the panel systems not functioning, the Oakland Fire Department and the nearby police station were never alerted to the fire.

Police said it took a maintenance engineer calling 911 before emergency crews knew of the smoke and electrical fire.

Records show there was a power arc inside a small electrical room near the student center in that case. The culprit, as first reported by the campus newspaper proved to be a large rat that caused the electrical surge and sparked a small fire and light smoke. Power was shut off to the entire campus for several hours.

The Peralta Board of Trustees approved $300,000 after the fire for emergency electrical repairs to the two main buildings affected — the student center and a major classroom building. But delays have persisted for months and both remain closed.

Shanoski said the fire alarm system is just one of a long list of problems at Laney College, including broken elevators, busted windows, leaking water fountains, and closed restrooms. She presented many of the issues to the Board of Trustees in February but hardly any of them have been completely addressed, as seen by 2 Investigates and Shanoski on a campus tour last month.

"I just think it's disrespectful to the students that we serve and sort of minimizes what their importance actually is to us." Shanoski said. "I hold the district administration accountable. I hold the president of the college accountable, the chancellor and vice-chancellor of facilities accountable."

There have been changes at the top of the administration including the chancellor and vice-chancellor of facilities. Acting Chancellor Frances White was brought on board in March to clean things up and admits there are many of problems.

"Let's just face it. I'm new to the position. I wasn't here," White said. "I just think we're in a situation where those of us who are here now, we're working hard to fix those problems. There are consequences to having things get into disrepair and lapsed."

Following the fire in late March, Oakland fire inspectors returned to the campus for a follow-up inspection in mid-April. They found only half of alarm panels on campus were actually working, some exits were still blocked, and some fire extinguishers had not been serviced in three years. They also found several extension cords plugged into each other, unauthorized space heaters, and missing safety equipment.

The Oakland Fire Prevention Bureau said all pull alarms should have been fixed by May 15, however, the deficiencies remain and Laney College is still on Fire Watch. That means the college will continue to have to spend thousands of dollars every day for fire patrol. While the bill keeps growing, more money has also been set aside to permanently fix the deficiencies.

Records show trustees approved a $1 million contract for fire system testing, inspections, and repairs for every building. Still, the deficiencies have not been corrected and no permits have been pulled to get a licensed contractor to do the work, according to the city.

"District staff continue to work through issues related to the fire alarms," White said. "This has been a problem. They [the board] have owned that problem, and they want it fixed. These issues cannot continue, they must be resolved for the safety of students and staff."

White said the goal is to have everything repaired by the time students come back for the fall semester. Technicians are expected to be at the Laney College campus the week of August 12 to attempt to correct issues associated with the control panels, she explained. The contractor anticipates completion of the work by mid-September or sooner, White added.