Fire system flub costs university $600,000

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on April 10, 2014
The newest student residence sits next to Burton’s Pond on the Memorial University campus in St. John’s. A glitch in the construction of the first building caused fire alarms to go off when students showered. The problem has been fixed.— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) opened one half of its new 500-room residence in St. John’s in September 2013, hitting up against a problem as the first 250 rooms were filled with students.

The new residence includes two six-storey towers. The towers are filled with suites, with each suite including two rooms and a shared shower. As one tower was occupied, vapour from the showers was often picked up by detectors and repeatedly set off the building’s fire alarm.

The alarms irritated students and also created an ongoing safety concern — until a contract was awarded for a permanent fix Dec. 6, at a cost of $591,616.

MUN’s associate vice-president of facilities, Ann Browne, said the problem with the fire system was not created by the general contractor on the project, Ellis Don. The company, she said Thursday, built the entire residence to spec.

“It wasn’t that they did anything wrong in the construction. They didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “I started here and fire alarms were going off my first week and, in fact, the week before I came. And of course the first thing I say to the architect is: so did you do the testing, did you do the models, did you do everything?

“And everything was done correctly. It’s just it was one of those glitch things that when they actually turned the building on, these started going off.”

Browne said John Hearn Architects, the firm who handled the project, followed code and believed everything would be fine with the planned facility.

“It wasn’t anything that they ever would have been able to tell, until the building was built and then we had a major issue,” she said.

“I’ve never seen this happen before in 28 years of construction. It was a very weird thing.”

The problem at the residence led to 23 false fire alarms in September and October, she said. Those false alarms resulted in the university instituting a “fire watch,” with a campus enforcement officers tasked 24-7 to the building, in the case of an alarm.

They were required to make sure residents were still evacuating the building.

Browne estimated that watch cost an additional $40,000 for the period it was active, in November and into December.

The contract for the permanent fix to the residence fire system was awarded in December, according to the provincial government’s list of tender exemptions, released this week.

Before deciding to go with any particular change, Browne said, the university conferred with contractors and outside consultants, looking at potential options. When a final plan was decided upon, Ellis Don was awarded the contract.

Browne said she believes the tender process would have delayed the fix by a couple of months, meaning a sustained fire watch and unaddressed safety concerns. And Ellis Don was on site and able to do the work required.

The fix included placing detectors back into the rooms — something also bringing the building up to speed with new fire code requirements.

The alarm problems existed before the change in the fire code. The change in code also meant some work would have to have been done on the new building regardless. Browne said the university took the opportunity to address both issues at the same time.

In January, the university opened the second half of the residence building. Both halves were fully occupied for the start of 2014.

Contacted late Thursday, a representative for Ellis Don in Newfoundland and Labrador said he was pressed for time and not able to immediately offer comment on the residence alarm trouble at that moment. The Telegram has offered to follow-up at any time with the company.