No clear answers for sprinkler system mishap

Crews dig up Highland Avenue in front of Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls in March after officials learned that the lines for the fire sprinkler system were not connected. –KYLE BRENNAN/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

BEACON FALLS — With no firm answers, Aquarion Water Company took full responsibility for the missteps that led up to the sprinkler system at Laurel Ledge Elementary School not being connected to a new water main.

“I wish it had been discovered earlier. We are very sorry this occurred. We are not happy this occurred. We apologize to the community of Beacon Falls for the situation,” Aquarion Director of Engineering and Planning Daniel Lawrence told the Board of Selectmen on Monday night.

On March 29, a routine inspection of the sprinkler system at the school discovered there was no water going to the sprinklers.

After a short inquiry, the water company found that the two water lines that feed the system weren’t connected to a new water main, which was laid last year during a project to reconstruct Highland Avenue.

The newly-reconstructed road was dug up and the problem was promptly fixed, allowing students to continue to use the building without disruption.

Aquarion then started an investigation into how it happened.

Nafis & Young Engineers Inc. was the consultant that designed and oversaw replacing the main. The company was also the firm overseeing the reconstruction project. Burns Construction did the actual work on the new main.

After talking to employees of Aquarion and Nafis & Young, Lawrence said there was no clear indication of where the mistake occurred.

“I interviewed everybody involved in terms of the contractor, the inspector, and the design engineer and could not get a straight answer as to why it wasn’t connected. It was different answers. It happens sometimes because people have a difference of opinion of whether it was connected. But we, as Aquarion, take full responsibility,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said the findings of the investigation show a number of small errors but not one glaring problem that stands out.

The problems started when the plans the water company has were sent out for design drawings. At that time, he said, it looks like the drawings only showed one of the three waterline connections to the school.

“They were not put on the drawings for whatever reason. No good reason. Then, when Aquarion reviewed the drawings, we didn’t ensure they were on the drawings. I think a fundamental error is we didn’t get them on the drawings,” Lawrence said.

Since the waterlines were not on the drawings, it is unclear if they were marked out on the road and there is no way to tell if they were since the road was repaved, Lawrence said.

“I asked both the contractor and the inspector and we have conflicting opinions of what was actually marked out. So, I can’t confirm whether the three were marked out,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said the final mistake was simply asking the school’s custodial staff if everything worked. Lawrence said he believes the staff checked the faucets and toilets, which were connected, but not the sprinkler system.

“When we made the switch over we asked if the school was all set, which is kind of too generic of a term,” Lawrence said.

Beacon Hose Company No. 1 Assistant EMS Director Kenny George asked why no one noticed the pipes weren’t connected when they were in front of the school.

“Was there nothing physical in the ground that someone would have seen,” George asked.

Since the original pipe was on the school side of the street and the new pipe was on the other side of the street, there was no way to find the connections without knowing they were there, Lawrence said.

Another mystery remains cloudy as well.

The entire reconstruction project was completed on Nov. 4. Region 16, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, has to inspect the sprinkler system quarterly. An inspection was done on Nov. 8 by Encore Fire Protection that reported the sprinklers were working and had adequate pressure.

Residents at Monday’s meeting asked why the sprinklers passed an inspection in November if they had not been hooked up.

Lawrence said he was not a fire protection specialist and couldn’t comment on why the system passed the inspection.

First Selectman Christopher Bielik said the issue is still under review by the state fire marshal.

Aquarian will also take care of the cost to repair Highland Avenue and bring it back to nearly the condition it was in before the emergency work had to take place, Lawrence said.

Currently, there are asphalt patches on the road.

Bielik said Nafis and Young and the town’s Public Works Department will work together to come up with an estimate for the work. Once the work, which is expected to begin later this summer, is completed Aquarion will reimburse the town for all costs, Lawrence said.