St. Mary Catholic School alarm system failed during active blaze: fire investigation

Fire department report reveals more about what happened on Jan. 25 at school

WELLINGTON NORTH – A Wellington North Fire Service (WNFS) incident report, recently obtained through a freedom of information request, reveals more about what happened leading up to and during a Jan. 25 fire that closed St. Mary Catholic School in Mount Forest.

According to the report, the school’s alarm system never alerted a monitoring company about the fire, and flames may have spread quickly because a fire door was left open.

The school has been closed since the fire, which caused upwards of $4 million in damage.

Though the school was empty at the time, there are normally up to 200 children inside with around 25 staff. Students have since been relocated to two Mount Forest churches.

The Advertiser received a heavily-redacted incident report on Feb. 13 from the Township of Wellington North under its Routine and Active Disclosure of Information Policy. Entire paragraphs and six pages of the 13-page document were completely blacked out.

The Advertiser submitted a formal freedom of information request two days later, which provided the newspaper a legal avenue to appeal the township’s redactions to the province’s privacy commissioner.

Another version, with far fewer redactions, was received in response to the request.

On a foggy Jan. 25 morning, just after 6am, a man arrived at the Parkside Drive elementary school to empty recycling bins stored the previous night in a room with indoor and outdoor access.

The man, whose name is redacted in the report, heard a loud noise from beyond two steel doors that led into the room from outside. 

He called out for anyone as he approached, but nearer to the doors, he heard crackling and realized there was a fire.

Flames began peeking out from around the doors, and the man called 911.

Although smoke alarms within the school sounded for three minutes, the fire alarm system failed to relay a signal about the fire to a company monitoring the system, according to the incident report.

Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) spokesperson Alison Lupal wrote the school’s smoke alarms are “actively monitored” by a company that would call 911 if there was fire.

She added the board completes system testing annually, and conducts fire drills throughout the year.

According to the WNFS incident report, the school’s fire alarm system was briefly taken offline by Fergus-based Protector Security a day before the fire, on Jan. 24.

Drew Wood, of Protector Security, explained a cable had to be replaced between a security panel and motion detector causing false burglary alarms.

The school’s entire alarm system was switched into “test” mode at 4:10pm on the afternoon of Jan. 24, before being returned online at 5:09pm the same day, according to Wood, who added the panel was working properly.

If a fire is detected, a signal goes from the school’s fire alarm panel to the school’s security panel, which alerts a monitoring company of a fire.

The Protector Security panel always monitors the connection between it and the school’s fire panel, and according to Wood, there was nothing indicating a malfunction with the connection.

The WCDSB contacted Protector Security the day of the fire asking about fire alarm signals, Wood wrote in an email.

“Our records indicate that the security panel did not receive a signal (trigger) from the fire alarm panel that was monitoring the school,” Wood stated.

“Protector Security also attended the site for further investigation, however due to the extent of the fire damage this was not possible.”

The fire alarm panel itself, along with smoke detectors, are the responsibility of another company – the security panel brings everything together and alerts the school’s monitoring company.

It’s unclear why the school’s fire panel failed to signal the security panel about the fire so emergency services could be contacted.

WCDSB’s spokesperson ignored follow-up questions from the Advertiser.

WNFS chief Chris Harrow told the Advertiser smoke alarms within the school did sound regardless, and he said he believes children, had they been in the school, would have had “ample time to evacuate.”

“The deeper probe into the alarm system is still an ongoing investigation with the school board and their insurance company,” the chief added.

Camera footage from within the school reviewed by WNFS showed smoke spilling from a room 30 seconds after a “pop … with a blast of forced air” was heard at 5:55am.

A minute later smoke alarms began sounding, and at 5:57am, flames were seen entering the school from the electrical room. 

At 5:59am, fire alarms stopped sounding despite the raging fire and dark grey smoke. It’s unknown why.

Fire crews were dispatched from Arthur, Mount Forest, Harriston and Minto, with around 30 total firefighters at the scene.

Crews fought against poor visibility in hallways and heavy flames in the school’s ceiling before the fire was declared under control at 8:06am.

Fire officials stated they believe the fire was caused by electrical failure in wiring in a room where a variety of cleaning equipment was stored, including mop buckets, a battery-operated floor cleaner, a cart and recycling bins.

Observations in the incident report by deputy fire chief Marco Guidotti suggest one of the steel fire doors separating the room from inside the school was left open because “the room was filled with recycling bins.”

A variety of cleaning equipment was also found “up against the electrical equipment or too close to the electrical equipment” in the room, Guidotti wrote.

The Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) was twice contacted about the fire, according to the report, but an investigator declined to attend.

“As the cause and origin were identified, it was deemed unnecessary for an OFM fire investigation,” spokesperson Sean Driscoll told the Advertiser in an email.

Repairs are currently ongoing at the school and the fire department will follow up once the fire system is running.