Alarming cost of fire upgrades to San Mateo County schools 

As school districts look to tighten their belts even more, they are being asked by a San Mateo County watchdog group to spend more on fire alarms to protect students.

School officials are understandably concerned about where the money will come from following a civil grand jury report in January requesting districts to upgrade their alarm systems and create a direct link to fire departments. The report said the types of alarms vary countywide.

This report was a follow-up to one released in 2008 that found 50 percent of schools had direct links to fire stations that would provide monitoring 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That was compared to 45 percent of schools that do not have a direct connection. There are 59 schools in the county.

Norm Forbert, superintendent of Bayshore Elementary School District, said there’s nothing wrong with his district’s current system.

“The grand jury gets grand ideas about getting the latest bells and whistles,” Forbert said. “They want us literally on a system that should hook up directly to a fire department because children are in these buildings.”

Any system improvements will be too much to handle for the district’s $3.5 million budget, he said.

Bayshore, located in eastern Daly City near the Cow Palace, has an estimated 410 students on two campuses. Forbert said the district’s focus is on saving programs and improving student learning, not upgrading systems that already work.

“We’re three blocks from the fire department,” he said. “They’ll see the smoke.”

Any building upgrades to California schools are required to include fire alarms that connect directly to a fire department, according to the original grand jury report from 2008. That law was approved by the state Legislature in 2002.

Schools that do not have new buildings or construction are not required to upgrade their systems to connect with fire agencies.

The cost to upgrade and maintain the direct connection can be as much as $22,000 per school. The price is too high for school districts that already are making cuts to programs.

Some school districts, however, have been planning for upgrades, along with large remodels.

Spokeswoman Joan Rosas said the San Mateo-Foster City School District already started upgrading systems in its 20 elementary and middle schools.

The district advertised for the improvements in its 2007 Measure L bond, which passed with 61 percent of the vote. The $175 million bond is focused on upgrades to buildings to add capacity and modernize old structures. During upgrades, district officials said, they will replace fire alarms to have a direct link to fire departments.

Safety precautions

Districts that have upgraded

Las Lomitas Elementary

Portola Valley Elementary

Cabrillo Unified

La Honda–Pescadero Unified

San Mateo–Foster City Elementary

Ravenswood City Elementary

Millbrae Elementary

Districts that need to upgrade but are restricted by funding

Bayshore Elementary

Belmont–Redwood Shores Elementary


San Bruno Park Elementary

San Carlos Elementary

Source: San Mateo County civil grand jury report

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