Costly sprinkler repairs at Vernon Hills High could have been free

  • Defective sprinkler heads inside Vernon Hills High School are being replaced as part of a multiyear project set to conclude in 2017.

      Defective sprinkler heads inside Vernon Hills High School are being replaced as part of a multiyear project set to conclude in 2017. Russell Lissau | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted12/16/2016 5:37 AM

A $201,000 effort to replace thousands of defective fire sprinkler heads inside Vernon Hills High School could have been done at no charge years ago, but District 128 officials say they didn't know about a product recall that has long since expired.

Nearly 1,700 sprinkler heads are being replaced as part of the project, which began in 2015 and is expected to conclude in 2017. The recall was announced in 2001, but district officials insist they didn't know about it until years later.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The safety lapse angered Libertyville financial watchdog Tim Anderson.

"For 15 years, you were out of compliance," Anderson said during Monday's Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 board meeting. "The assets and the equipment were put into peril needlessly for 15 years. That is unconscionable."

Anderson's comments followed a prepared statement about the sprinkler project by board President Pat Groody.

Groody said administrators and board members didn't learn there was an issue with the sprinkler heads until District 128's buildings and grounds maintenance operation was reorganized in 2014.

As part of that reorganization, the company that oversees the operation, Aramark, now reports to a District 128 employee. Before 2014, the Aramark team didn't report directly to a district staffer, Groody said. The Aramark employee who ran the district's buildings and grounds department before 2014 no longer works in District 128.

In his remarks Monday, Groody tried to assure the community "the safety and security of our students is a top priority for all of us."

Groody's statement was prompted by Anderson's inquiries about the sprinkler project, District 128 spokeswoman Mary Todoric said.

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The potentially faulty sprinkler heads were installed before Vernon Hills High opened in 1999. They were manufactured by Central Sprinkler Co., an affiliate of a Pennsylvania company called Tyco Fire Protection Products.

The company recalled 35 million sprinkler heads made with O-ring seals in July 2001. According to Groody, the company discovered minerals, salt and other contaminants in water could damage the seals over time.

"These factors could cause the sprinkler heads not to activate in a fire," according to a 2001 recall announcement from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The deadline to participate in a free recall program was August 2007, and the company sent several notices to customers, Groody said. The company and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also posted information about the recall online. But none of that information made it to District 128 administrators during the recall, Groody said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Following an internal investigation, none of the notifications that may have been sent to D128 or VHHS have been located in any of the district files," Groody said. "We've been unable to confirm that proper notification was received or, if it was received, to whom it was sent."

Groody put it more simply in a subsequent interview: "There was a communication gap."

Fire inspection reports completed during the last decade also indicated the sprinkler heads had been recalled, Groody said. That information wasn't relayed to top District 128 administrators, either, he said.

At Monday's meeting, Anderson accused officials of ignoring an opportunity to replace the sprinklers for free.

"Somewhere down the line, the ball fell through," he said.

The sprinkler replacement has been done in phases. The fourth and final phase is set for this spring and will focus on the indoor swimming pool area, Todoric said.

This isn't the first time District 128 officials have blamed the former building-and-grounds director for safety problems they've encountered.

In 2011, the swimming pools at Vernon Hills High and Libertyville High were temporarily closed to students and the public after officials discovered federally mandated safety improvements to the drains hadn't been made.

Communications from the Illinois Department of Public Health to the district about the needed changes went to the district's buildings and grounds department but were not passed up the chain of command, Superintendent Prentiss Lea said at the time.

The pools reopened in 2012 after the unsafe drains were replaced.

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