When a fire broke out early Wednesday in Chapman Elementary, the Northwest Portland school was lucky a teacher and a custodian were on the scene to react quickly.
Kevin Bush, a fifth-grade teacher, alerted Kevin Perkey, the school's custodian, about 6 a.m. to manually pull an alarm, leading firefighters to arrive minutes later. Firefighters were able to contain the blaze, which Portland Fire Bureau officials later blamed on oily rags within a trashcan.
Firefighters almost certainly would have been alerted later had no one been in the building. Like many of Portland's aging schools, Chapman lacks a sprinkler system and smoke detectors inside every classroom.
That situation will continue for many buildings for the foreseeable future, Portland Public Schools officials say. With the record-breaking, $482 million construction bond the district persuaded voters to approve last fall, no money was budgeted to update fire safety within schools other than four buildings set for total reconstruction.
"Certainly it's the district's desire to have updated fire alarm systems" in all schools, said the district's chief operating officer C.J. Sylvester, "but the community of Portland is not in a financial position to be able to do that."
District officials say just because fire protection systems are outdated does not mean they are unsafe. If no one were at Chapman Wednesday to sound the alarm, smoke would have eventually tripped hallway sensors connected to emergency responders, said Tony Magliano, the district's deputy chief operating officer.
The main goal is to ensure that when children and staff are present, they are evacuated quickly, officials said.
Since the late 1980s, fire codes have required automated sprinkler systems in all areas of most newly constructed schools.
But only eight of the Portland district's 85 school buildings are fully covered by sprinkler systems, according to district spokeswoman Christine Miles. Another 54 have sprinkler systems in some parts of the building.
All Portland schools have smoke detectors, but many older buildings lack the devices within every classroom. Like Chapman's system, the smoke sensors are often in hallways instead.
In November 2012, voters approved a bond issue, backed by property taxes, that will bring schools up to current earthquake codes, improve science labs, improve access for students with disabilities and replace leaky roofs. Four schools scheduled for full replacement will meet fire codes for new buildings, but no money was budgeted to upgrade other schools.
An earlier bond proposal, in May 2011, would have addressed fire protection in some existing structures. Authors of the 2011 measure included $5 million to upgrade fire alarm systems at nine schools: Benson High; Franklin High; the now-defunct Harriet Tuman Leadership Academy for Young Women; Madison High; Boise-Eliot; Da Vinci Middle; Roseway Heights; Scott School; and West Sylvan. Another nine were scheduled for complete replacement, which would have brought up-to-date fire protection systems.
But Sylvester said when voters narrowly rejected the plan, schools officials looked to community members to guide priorities in hopes of pushing a new measure to victory. Voters had different priorities, she said.
"The voters have to tell us what they're willing to fund, and we believe that's what we did with the November 2012 bond," Sylvester said. "We can make visible to them the nature and extent of our facility deficiencies in great detail, but ultimately it's up to the community to help us focus on what they think is the most important piece."
Miles said Wednesday's incident represented a sign of good training and dedication on the staff's part.
"They did exactly what they were supposed to: calling 911 and getting out of the building," she said.
Annual inspections and drills
Without fire systems that meet standards for new construction, the district has focused heavily on stepping up inspections and fire drills.
In 2008, the district had fallen behind on annual inspections after implementing a new evaluation process that was more rigorous and took more time. The problem was underscored in 2009, when a fire engulfed the east wing of Marysville School, which had to be rebuilt before re-opening this year. Although fire alarms at Marysville worked properly, they had not been inspected in 18 months prior to the blaze.
Magliano said the district is now caught up on inspections. Miles, the district spokeswoman, said students have 11 fire drills at school each year.
Employees inspected Chapman's fire alarm system in November 2012, and the Portland Fire Marshal inspected the school in September 2011.
The Chapman fifth-graders who were scheduled to start in the classroom next Wednesday will move to the school's art room, said Miles. The school's famed flocks of swifts seemed unfazed.
Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Noelle Crombie of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.