Lagniappe reported earlier this week that a taxpayer-funded fire watch had been established at Booth. On Jan. 8, the City Council was informed by Fire Chief John Wiggins that water flow from the hydrants on the school’s premises were insufficient to power the department’s hoses and use the school’s built-in sprinkler system simultaneously — a situation Wiggins said could be potentially dangerous for students.
Less than a week later, on Jan. 13, the council called an emergency meeting to discuss new tests that had been run on the water system by the Mobile County Public School System.
Because city officials still felt there was a continued safety issue, discussions at that meeting were centered on a dilemma to either completely shut down Booth Elementary School or to extend the fire watch — at the city’s expense — until the problem is solved.
“If we close down Anna Booth, will that get the school board down here faster?” Councilwoman Jennifer Storked asked at the meeting. “I don’t want these kids not to be in school, but will it get the school board down here?”
Annette Johnson, a Councilwoman and MCPSS employee, said the city didn’t want to shut down the school, but did want to make sure all of the children were safe, which is why the city is paying roughly $300 a day for the fire watch despite not having a legal obligation to do so.
Wiggins said representatives from the school board, including MCPSS Director of Operations Tommy Sheffield had been in contact with city officials. One of the pieces of information Wiggins presented to the Council was an email from Sheffield acknowledging that the waterflow on the school grounds “did not meet the requirements” of the National Fire Protection Association.
At the emergency meeting, Wiggins said the Booth water supply is connected to that of Alma Bryant High School, which runs underground beneath the two miles separating the schools.
Wiggins said Bryant’s water system, which connects to a 12-inch main owned by the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre, is working fine. However, Wiggins said recent tests show the lines at Booth — connected to the Utilities Board 8-inch main, are not meeting the minimum flow requirements that would be needed to put out a full-scale fire.
“It’s the school system’s responsibility,” City Attorney Bill Wasden said following the meeting. “The city is not responsible for providing fire protection capability through this water flow. The comment was made that these are the school system’s children, but these are presumably mostly the children of the citizens of Bayou la Batre.”
Almost immediately after the City Council adjourned, the Utilities Board held its regular meeting. There, Johnson — who serves on both boards — brought up the water pressure to members of the utilities board. Like the Council, they seem to believe that if there’s an issue, it’s the school board’s.
“We have the (necessary) flow in the mainline, it’s on the school board property where it starts restricting,” said Sylvia Raley, president of the Utilities Board. “Every hydrant on their property is theirs, they aren’t ours. We only service the mains.”
When asked for a previous report, Sheffield told Lagniappe a pump installed at Booth Elementary would ensure the school’s sprinkler system could operate — even if the pressure was low. However, he said if firefighters needed to access additional water from the hydrants there would likely not be adequate pressure to run both simultaneously.
Some have accused the City Council of “creating a problem over nothing,” as the same lines have been installed at Booth since 2005. But, Wiggins said his staff was “not crying wolf, as is being insinuated.”
Some at the Utilities Board asked Johnson why the council was funding a fire watch at Booth, and not at Peter F Alba Middle School, which Raley said doesn’t have any fire protection.
Johnson said Wiggins had brought the issues at Booth to the forefront of the Council’s attention after his firefighters struggled to get water to extinguish a fire in a wooded area near the school in November. Wiggins said the fire “got closer to the school than he wanted it to.”
According to Sheffield, Booth is insured against fire. He also said the sprinkler system is operational and covers the school system for both the safety of the students and its legal liability.
Wasden said he would be in contact with attorneys for the school board and the Utilities Board to set up a time for all three entities to discuss the matter.
In the mean time, engineers for the Utilities Board are gathering schematics for the company’s mainlines and the school system’s piping and sprinkler system at Booth in an attempt to start diagnosing where the problem could be.
However, because it’s unclear whose responsibility the low pressure is, it’s also unclear who is going to foot the bill for any necessary repairs. The city is also continuing its fire watch during the hours the school is occupied with students.
City officials have already reached out to the office of Alabama’s Attorney General to ensure Wiggins has the legal authority to shut down Booth in the event of a fire hazard — an option the city hasn’t completely taken off the table.
Attempts to reach Mobile County Superintendent Martha Peek and Tommy Sheffield for the report were immediately unsuccessful.