Archive for Thursday, August 23, 2007

BESIC evacuated by electrical woes

August 23, 2007

Tuesday afternoon's power glitch at Baldwin Elementary School Intermediate Center proved to be a good test for the emergency system, but has also put Baldwin City's electrical supply in question.

A power problem at about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday knocked out an air conditioning unit at BESIC and eventually led to the building's mechanical room filling with smoke. BESIC Principal Tom Mundinger immediately evacuated the building and the 250 students and staff were bused to the district office before being returned in time for school to get out.

Emergency procedures were tested and they passed.

"I would have rather it didn't happen, but everybody did what they were supposed to do," said Mundinger. "On short notice, it went really well.

"It's business as usual," he said Wednesday morning. "Everything is back to normal. You'd never know anything happened."

There had been a practice run, quite by chance, Monday on the first day of school. Also, the school district's new emergency notification system was used for the first time and worked.

"We were lucky because we had had a fire drill and tornado drill the day before," said Mundinger. "That was actually good timing because the kids and teachers knew where to go. Transportation did a good job of getting over here and taking them over to the district office."

Although the notification system wasn't quite ready, it got the job done, but will need to be tweaked.

"Yeah, actually that wasn't fully implemented yet," Mundinger said. "We were still fine tuning that. We didn't anticipate having to use it that quickly. Mr. Dorathy went back to the IT people and they got the message out."

A list was developed of BESIC parents and phone numbers, which was entered into the system and the calls were made.

"I had several people saying they appreciated that," he said. "We still have to work out something about if it's during the day, call the grandparents or the baby sitter. It was a good opportunity to test that. We still need to fine tune it."

Power at issue

The situation revolved around surge protectors used only at BESIC and not at any other schools. They take the power from the city before it goes to the rest of the electrical system.

Dale Wolford, project manager for Quality Electric that installed the BESIC system, said the problem is with the city power supply, not the surge protectors. City Administrator Jeff Dingman checked on any power surges from the city Tuesday and said there were none.

"That surge protector has taken 3,000 hits in the past year and a half," said Wolford. "That's excessive. The problem lies with the utilities. Engineering (of the protectors) could be at fault, too. They're not designed to take 3,000 hits.

"I don't think it's a fault of the surge protectors," he said. "It's unpredictable (power supply). They do have some problems with the electrical system."

Dingman was surprised to hear that.

"That's different from what I've heard," said Dingman. "When I first heard about the problem at the IC, I checked on the power supply for high voltage or spikes. When our crews checked there, that wasn't the case. Everything on our side checked out."

Wolford couldn't say what those 3,000 hits meant. The surge protectors only record that they occur, not the amount of voltage involved. He said he doesn't know how the supply varies.

"Not without monitoring it," said Wolford.

Dingman just knew what he was told about Tuesday's supply and is looking into it further.

"That's not what I heard from my lineman," said Dingman. "To him, whatever they did told him it wasn't the power supply. It sounds like the problem is unresolved."

For Mundinger, the bottom line was getting the students and staff out. The surge protectors had gone out before, but this time it was different.

"It happened a couple of years ago, same situation," said Mundinger. "The one thing different this time was smoke came in the building. The mechanical room filled with smoke.

"I thought, 'I'm getting them out of here,'" he said. "I'm not taking any chances."

How it happened

Regardless of whether it was the surge protectors, power, a combination of both or something else, it was a problem. Mundinger detailed the sequence of events.

"One of the roof top air conditioning units quit," he said. "The custodian checked the breaker and reset it. Immediately after that, we noticed our computers were down. Those are on another breaker.

"We went to the mechanical room to check on that," said Mundinger. "When we looked at the breakers in the mechanical room, the ones to the computers were off. We switched those on and then when we heard popping, we immediately backed off and didn't touch anything else."

That prompted a series of calls to Dorathy.

"I went and called the district office," he said. "When I went back is when I could see the smoke. I called the district office and told Mr. Dorathy what was going on and said I was evacuating the building."

Mundinger also called the Baldwin City Fire Department. That brought a response with several fire engines, including Palmyra Township fire fighters, as well as Baldwin City police, Douglas County Sheriff's deputies, an ambulance and city utility crews. Not long after that, Wolford from Quality Electric was also at the school. He was in town working on the Downtown Streetscape project.

Buses were sent to BESIC and students and staff were loaded up and taken to the district office. They were returned at about 2:45 p.m. to allow for normal pickups. Initially when everyone was bused away, it was unknown whether they'd be taken back or would have to be picked up at the district office.

When power was restored, everyone was sent back.

"I was pleased that we were able to go back so we could release the kids from there so they'd know what was going on," said Mundinger. "They could tell that everything was back to normal. That helped stop any rumors, like the school had burned down."

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