Team 10 source: Sexy outweighs safety at Sweetwater Union High School District

Team 10 investigates Prop. O funds use

SAN DIEGO - Sweetwater Union High School District has high schools, junior highs and middle schools in need of fire system upgrades but nothing is being done, according to an inside source who came forward to Team 10.

"Others in the district have expressed urgency to get started on this work," said the source, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. "There are some buildings where portions of the system doesn't work."

The whistleblower said years of delay has done nothing but frustrate people inside the district the source said were very concerned.

The insider said whenever employees raise the issue of the outdated, and possibly non-functioning equipment, the concerns are ignored by management.

Team 10 also talked to other sources inside the district who said the same thing about the fire alarms systems at various schools.

"The sad thing is that in making 'guns or butter' decisions, the district has opted for synthetic tracks and ball fields over the life-safety improvements," said another anonymous source. "Quite simply, there is no appetite for non-sexy choices."

Team 10 found 19 schools have been approved for fire alarm systems upgrades, according to records held by the Division of State Architects (, the state agency that keeps track of fire alarm systems in schools.

CLICK to view the agency's documents for the 19 schools:

But, the agency is not responsible for system upgrades once school construction is complete. Upgrades in existing buildings not under construction are the responsibility of the district, according to the state fire marshal.

The records review show some Sweetwater schools have been approved for upgrades to fire alarms dating back at least five years, with one school, Chula Vista Middle School, approved approximately nine years ago.

Castlepark, Eastlake and Montgomery, Granger, Southwest and Mar Vista schools also need fire system upgrades, according to records reviewed by Team 10.

Instead of performing the upgrades, the district has requested extensions to delay the upgrade work..

The public information officer for the district, Manuel Rubio, told Team 10 that student safety is the district's top priority.  

Rubio said all fire systems are functioning and inspections by the districts outside contractor Simplex Grinnell  ( confirm there are no safety issues and everything is working properly.

But Team 10's inside source isn't that confident about the systems and wonders why the upgrades aren't the top priority.

"They seem to have money for other projects and I don't understand why the fire alarms aren't their first priority," the source said.

Proposition O, the $644 million dollar bond measure approved by voters, could be used to upgrade fire alarms.

Rubio said the upgrades are eventually coming and they still have sufficient Prop. O money to cover the costs.

Asked about who makes the decision on what is upgraded first, Rubio said, "prioritization for us is set by the board of trustees and working through our community outreach."

He also said older schools have gotten the first Prop. O dollars, and they will get the fire upgrades once all work is done at each school location.

So far, the district is spending that money on other things, such as the athletic fields at Sweetwater Union High School. Upgrades to the football field and track cost $2.3 million.

CLICK to view the district Prop. O financial summary:

Sweetwater High is on the list for needing fire alarm systems upgrades for the music and gym buildings, which would cost an estimated $1.2 million.

Voters passed Proposition O partly because it promised to upgrade classrooms, remove asbestos and lead paint, improve handicap accessibility and upgrade fire and safety systems.

"The children's safety should be a priority," the inside source said.

Team 10 has requested a copy of the most recent inspections and tests done by the contractor, under the state open records act. The story will be updated when those records are received.

Three fire agencies serve the school district -- the Chula Vista, San Diego and National City fire departments serve Sweetwater.

National City Fire has not responded to Team 10's requests for additional information. Both Chula Vista and San Diego Fire provided Team 10 with similar responses to questions. Below are the questions Team 10 asked and the responses received from San Diego Fire Department spokesman Maurice Luque.

The schools listed below are in the Chula Vista School District and in the Sweetwater Union District. SDFD inspects 5 of the schools on the list due to the fact that they are located within the city of San Diego.

-- Mar Vista Middle
-- Montgomery Middle
-- Southwest Middle
-- Montgomery High
-- Southwest High

Team 10 question:
As I understand it, your departments only takes over the inspections of the schools in your areas of responsibility ONCE the State Architect and the school district, and its inspectors have signed off that the upgrades and other work is done and up to standards. So your agency has no responsibility whatsoever for the pending work that is to be done?

Luque response:
His statement is correct in that we do not have responsibility for any of the work being done. We are responsible for conducting annual fire and life safety inspections of the existing occupancy. Once the changes/upgrades are completed, everything is incorporated into the annual inspection.
Team 10 question:
Does your annual test involve all alarm systems throughout the district?

Luque response:
We do not conduct testing of any alarm systems as that is the responsibility of the District. They have the option of having their own State licensed personnel conduct the required testing and maintenance, or contracting with a private, State licensed alarm company. We review testing and maintenance documents during the annual fire inspection to ensure there are no deficiencies and, if there are, to ensure the deficiencies are corrected.

Late Wednesday, Team 10 reconnected with the Sweetwater Union High School District. Rubio, the district's communications director, forwarded the following statement to Team 10:

I think the tone of the story is one that implies that: 1) we aren’t doing anything about the situation and 2) that alarms are not functional and operational. Both of these statements are incorrect. As I shared with you, ALL of our fire alarm systems in the district are fully functional and meet the standards as outlined by fire marshals. If they were not, we would not be allowed to operate those sites. What this story addresses are upgrades.

I don't think you clearly show that there is a process involved in this work. We schedule our upgrade projects once all the major work on the site is completed because of demolition of older buildings and the new buildings put up in their place are already upgraded. As far as any work with fire alarms, they take the highest priority for us. We immediately address any issue or work order regarding fire alarms that would place a site at risk.

And finally, we encourage anyone that has information on specifics to let us know directly. We are always happy to walk them through the process and address any concerns.

Response to a Team 10 request for information from the National City Fire Department came in after the original broadcast. Here is the agency's response to Team 10's questions, provided by Battalion Chief/Fire Marshal Robert Hernandez.

"Any new construction with the schools in my jurisdiction are all handled by DSA. Things such as fire alarm and fire sprinkler upgrades are designed, fabricated installed and tested to code by DSA inspectors. In the past, I have been part of meeting with DSA architects on water supply and access only. This was typical with Sweetwater high School and National City Middle School tenant improvements. In addition, the National City Fire Department conducts annual required fire inspection with all schools in the City of National City. These annual inspections are conducted in the month of October. The inspection includes a meeting with the principal and a review of corrections found at the sight. In addition, schools are required to conduct scheduled disaster and fire drills throughout the school year. These drills are documented with a copy sent to my office monthly. Also, it would be the responsibility of the school district to have fire alarm and fire sprinkler systems inspected annually to meet code requirements. Finally, it is traditional that the schools in our district use the installed fire alarm system to conduct these types of drills. I hope this has been helpful."

The schools that National City is responsible for:

Central , El Toyon, Ira Harbison, John Otis, Kimball, Las Palmas, Lincoln Acres, Olivewood, Palmer Way , Rancho de la Nación, Sweetwater High School, National City Middle School and Granger Junior High School.

Print this article Back to Top