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The Mountain Home Public Schools’ District finds itself in another predicament over its aging high school after State Fire Marshall Dennis Free issued a new letter doubling down on his contradictory statements about the Big Top and the original 1965 roof that lays beneath it.
The letter, which was sent to the district on Nov. 10, states that Free sees no need to condemn the Big Top despite previously telling the district that it should be removed and replaced in an August email.
The letter was issued after Facility Planner Aliza Jones, who spoke at MHPS’s last school board meeting, sent Free an email requesting to know how the Big Top is both safe for students while simultaneously being a serious hazard to firefighters.
“How can a catastrophic event, a major loss to the community and a firefighters’ nightmare not allude to some safety concerns with students and staff if the fire marshal doesn’t want to send his guys in? So, just saying that there is no present danger, is not fully accurate,” said Jones during a school board on Nov. 2.
Mountain Home Fire Marshal Shawn Lofton had also previously ruled that the Big Top was a “firefighter’s nightmare” and that safety issues surrounding the structure needed to be addressed as soon as possible to “reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic event and a major loss to the community.”
Free’s pivot matches with the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation’s backtracking on officially recommending that the Big Top come down despite telling Mountain Home Superintendent Allyson Dewey that the building should be “eliminated” in a private meeting over the district being potentially placed in academic facilities distress in September.
The division issued a letter to the district to “develop a transitional plan to remedy safety concerns with the pre-engineered metal building” on Sept. 25.
Neither Free nor Division officials responded to a request for comment over why their official rulings did not co-align with what they were telling MHPS officials in private.
Free’s official recommendations now include employing a fire protection engineer to do a major inspection of the school, inspecting the school’s fire walls, fire barriers and fire separation walls and ensuring that all penetrations have been properly sealed. Free also recommended contacting the district’s fire alarm contractor to ensure all systems under the Big Top are interconnected.
It should be noted that the Big Top is currently grandfathered into past building codes and is technically still in compliance with state law. In a conversation with the Observer, Lofton said that many of the nation’s current fire safety standards for buildings were not put into place until after the events of 9/11.
“In my Aug. 23, 2023, email to you I stated ‘from a Fire Marshal and firefighters’ standpoint, the structure needs to be removed and replaced. But this will be the decision of the local school district,’” said Free in his latest letter to MHPS. “And to state that the structure should be condemned, I believe this is not in order at this time, even though this structure provides a serious hazard to firefighters during firefighting operations, as far as day-to-day operations, it does not appear to present a danger to staff and students to occupy.”
Sticking to his guns
While state officials appear to be walking back their statements to the school district, Fire Marshal Lofton is sticking to what he originally wrote in his letter to the district following his inspection of the Big Top.
In an interview with the Observer, Lofton said that he was not trying to be sensationalist when calling the Big Top a “firefighter’s nightmare,” but was attempting to convey the serious hazards that the members of the Mountain Home Fire Department would have to face if they were required to fight a fire in the attic of the Big Top.
Lofton said that not only would firefighters have to work to fight their way up one of the two narrow entrances to the Big Top’s attic, but firefighters would have to face extreme heat from all of the flammable material in the attic, including insulation and the original high school’s roof. Firefighters would also face serious falling hazards in a no-light situation due to heavy smoke.
Lofton said he absolutely agreed that members of MHFD could potentially die when entering the Big Top during a fire. When asked if he would allow the Big Top to burn down after retrieving all students and staff, the Fire Marshal said, “There’s not a building in town that’s worth the life of a firefighter.”
Lofton then said, “We would do everything that we can to save [the Big Top] for the community because, if you lose that, you know, we’re talking about displacing 900 students. But we’re not going to put ourselves into harm’s way.”
While Lofton has grave concern for the members of his department, he said he believes that students and staff would have more than enough time to escape the Big Top if the district installed an advanced early warning system and practiced its fire drills.
When asked directly if the allegations over the Big Top’s previous fire detection system were not operational, Lofton confirmed them to be true. The district is currently working to install an advanced system that uses a series of pipes to monitor air quality within the structure. The current system that resides in the Big Top was fixed and is now operational.
When further pressed on why safety concerns with the Big Top were not documented by MHFD in years prior to the lead-up to the district’s attempt to knock down the structure, Lofton said the concerns were well known within the fire department. MHFD members visited the structure several times while treating it as a pre-planning issue to come up with ideas over how to tackle a fire in the structure, but said he could not speak on why official concerns within the department were never documented.
Lofton became Fire Marshal for MHFD in September of 2021 and appears to be the first in the position to officially document safety issues within the Big Top.
While Lofton said that advanced detection is the key to keeping students safe, he could not “ensure the longevity of the Big Top” for future years to come in its current state. The Big Top is roughly 30 years old and the original roof and building residing beneath it is roughly 60 years old.
District reaction to Free’s letter
During last night’s regular school board meeting, MHPS Director of Operations Chris Knight took to the floor to notify the school board of Free’s recommendations.
Knight said that most of Free’s recommendations were already in the process of being addressed and that he would look into securing a fire protection engineer to conduct an inspection of the high school.
The school board did not comment on the letter. In a conversation with the Observer on Tuesday, Superintendent Dewey said she would continue to focus the district’s attention on education.
The MHPS School Board is set to vote on its transition safety plan and its master plan during next month’s regular school board meeting. The district is expected to fully satisfy the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation’s publicly stated requirements and avoid being placed in facilities distress.