After the superintendent read a reassuring email from Forest Park’s fire chief, the Forest Park school board voted Feb. 13 not to add fire-suppressant sprinklers to the addition on Betsy Ross Elementary School.

“Your plan is solid and I have every reason to believe the project will provide a safe environment for the students at Betsy Ross,” Forest Park Fire Chief Steve Glinke wrote to Superintendent Lou Cavallo Feb. 10. Glinke also serves as head of the Department of Public Health and Safety.

The board was revisiting the architect’s plans after a community meeting Jan. 14, where a retired Forest Park fireman and others asked why designs had no fire sprinklers for the new addition. The school is located at 1315 Marengo Ave.

Darien-based architects Wight and Co. did not add a sprinkler-system, Cavallo told the board, because the footprint of the addition, at 5,800 sq. feet, fell below the minimum 7,200 sq. ft. mandated by the Illinois State Board of Education to require sprinklers.

“One of the reasons a bigger addition requires sprinklers is it takes longer to get people out,” Cavallo said. “This addition is not very large.”

Wight gave the board a revised estimate of costs to add sprinkler coverage to the addition only and the entire school. Adding sprinklers to the addition area, a gym/ lunchroom, kitchen and two extra classrooms cost $35,000- $40,000, Wight estimated. To retrofit the entire school with sprinklers would cost $145,000- $155,000 the estimate said. Plus, the district would have to pay to replace all ceilings, lighting and upgrade water service to a 6″ pipe, Cavallo said. Cavallo also said sprinkler pipes can freeze and burst, causing water damage.

Additions at Garfield and Grant-White schools were built with sprinkler systems.

Cavallo said a responsive alarm system and fire drills were the best way to insure student safety in a fire. In the Betsy Ross plan, architects would replace the alarm system in the school with a completely new hard-wired system and panel which linked directly to the Forest Park Fire Department. He also said regular evacuation fire drills got everyone out of the building in 1.5 minutes.

Board member Eric Connor agreed. He presented research he had done on sprinkler systems in the United Kingdom and the U.S.

“The safest way to protect students is quick egress,” Connor said. “You get students out quickly.”

Connor said he most school fires started in kitchens or lavatories and school fires that got big enough to damage buildings started at night when no one was in the building. Connor also said sprinklers were programmed to work independently when triggered by heat.

“It’s not like the movies where all the sprinklers go off at the same time,” he said.

Cavallo also addressed the architects’ designs for a 2nd story playground on the roof of the gym/lunchroom. Community members said they thought students would have a hard time getting down in a fire.

“If you put four walls and a ceiling around it, it would be a classroom and it’s just as safe [to exit] as the other second-flood classrooms,”Cavallo said.

Board member Rafael Rosa said retrofitting Betsy Ross with sprinklers would imply the district had to do that to the other schools, “and that’s going to get expensive.”

“If it’s just about us feeling better about [the risk of fire] I don’t see the point,” he said. “And then we have to ask about the cost across all the schools.”

The board voted three-to-two not to install sprinklers. Rosa, Mary Win Connor and Sean Blaylock voted against the sprinklers. Eric Connor and President Frank Mott voted in favor. Board members Michael O’Connor and Heather Cianciolo were absent.

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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