Flagged hazards went unaddressed before Highland fire — a common occurence in Idaho schools

Updated on Feb. 15 with comments from Idaho Falls School District and Boise School District. 

POCATELLO — In the week before a fire consumed part of Highland High, the school’s Trouveres choir performed on a stage in the cafeteria, and used sound and lighting equipment — including an amplifier.

In the early hours of April 21, 2023, an electrical fault in that amplifier may have caused a spark, igniting the surrounding stage curtains and spreading into the roof trusses. 

That’s the “most probable” explanation for how the blaze that partially destroyed the high school started, according to reports from the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Pocatello Fire Department.

The curtains that potentially exacerbated the disaster were not fire-rated, and state inspectors had flagged them as a fire hazard that should be removed or replaced — a warning issued to school administrators annually since 2019. 

The 411 on School Inspections Idaho schools are usually inspected for safety twice annually — once by the local fire department, and once by a state agency called DOPL. But school leaders don’t always fix flagged problems right away, or at all. And in some cases, they’re not legally required to. 

But the curtains were just one of a number of fire hazards identified at the high school — including a fire alarm panel that needed servicing (which was scheduled for the summer); dangerously cluttered classrooms and storage areas; and fire extinguishers that hadn’t been checked for functionality.

Highland’s not alone — schools throughout Idaho have similar records of struggling to keep up with routine safety maintenance. There’s a long list of reasons why, including tight budgets, understaffing, and aging buildings. 

On top of that, state school inspectors can’t always enforce their recommendations, and local fire department inspectors can be too swamped to follow up and ensure fixes are made.

In Highland’s case, it all added up to disaster last spring.

Highland High is one of three traditional high schools, and of 24 schools altogether, in the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District.

Records indicate numerous fire code violations before flames engulfed Highland High

The last person to leave Highland High before the fire was a night janitor, who told investigators that he kept having to recharge the batteries for the Tomcat floor buffer — which was unusual. 

At the end of his shift, he parked the Tomcat in its place on the stage in Highland’s cafeteria, according to reports from the State Fire Marshal and Pocatello Fire Department.

It’s possible that the Tomcat’s batteries malfunctioned and started the fire. But the “most probable” cause was the amplifier sparking and catching the curtains on fire, according to fire investigators. 

There’s also a third possibility.

For this story, EdNews requested public records from five agencies, including the Idaho State Fire Marshal; the Pocatello Fire Department; the Department of Professional Licensing; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. We received reports from all but the latter; we’ll provide an update when we receive that.  

Courtney Fisher, the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District’s spokesperson, said that another “private professional investigation” concluded that “the fire originated in the ceiling from an unknown source.” The investigation was conducted for the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program — or ICRMP, the district’s insurance provider — and has not been released to the district or the public yet, she said. 

Regardless of whether the untreated stage curtains were responsible for turning a spark into a blaze, they were just one of a handful of fire safety hazards/code violations at the school, according to the state and local fire investigation reports, which EdNews obtained via public records requests.

Additional hazards included:

  • Malfunctioning fire alarm system: “The fire alarm system was discovered to be inoperative, allowing the fire to rapidly grow from incipient stage to full development before the fire department was notified,” Joe Schimanski, a deputy state fire marshal, wrote in a fire investigation report. 
    • Malfunctioning detectors: Smoke detectors in other areas of the schools were exposed to smoke, but they “failed or the system (panel) failed to notify a central receiving station of activation,” Schimanski wrote. 
    • Malfunctioning alarms: In their reports, investigators identified building/fire code issues: “The main fire alarm panel indicated it was in ‘trouble mode.’ The fire alarm did not activate or send a (signal) to the monitoring company. Once the sprinkler system was activated, it did not send an alarm or water flow to the monitoring company. The water bell did not sound, and the water strobe was not activated.”
  • A lack of handheld fire extinguishers: None could be located in the area after the fire.
  • A lack of smoke detection/alarm systems: “The absence of fire or smoke detection/alarm systems, or components, had caused a delay in discovering the fire during the incipient stage. As a result, the absence of early warning had contributed to the consumption of, and degradation of, the combustible materials within the structure,” according to Schimanski.
  • Doorways left open: “Defects were observed that would have substantially contributed to the fire’s spread, specifically, the failure to maintain fire doors leading from the stage to the choir/band room corridor, as well as the removal of the door to the stairs leading to the northside corridor.”
  • Malfunctioning fire doors: “During the on-site examination, sufficient evidence or information was revealed that a pre-fire building or fire code violation existed. The double doors located in the hallways separating the wings did not close. Pocatello firefighters manually closed the doors,” Schimanski wrote.

School leaders were aware of some of these issues before the fire. Fisher said that the district was planning to replace Highland’s fire control panel in July 2023. 

She also pointed out that the D-wing (the part of the school where the cafeteria was located) was grandfathered in, and met fire code requirements for the time period in which it was built in the 1960s. Also, the district did update the D-wing’s fire systems at one point, adding fire pull alarms; sprinklers; and warning horns and strobes. 

Since 2020, the school has also upgraded the fire alarm systems in nine of its two dozen schools.

“The safety and well-being of our learners and staff is paramount,” Fisher wrote in an email to EdNews.

She also explained that the district’s 31-person maintenance staff is responsible for the upkeep of:

  • 28 buildings
  • 1.7 million square feet of building space
  • 29 gyms and multipurpose areas

The maintenance team receives more than 1,500 to 2,000 work orders every month, she said. 

“Factors such as budget constraints, scheduling issues, or prioritization of other safety measures, adequate facilities, the ability to pass a facilities bond or levy, as well as having adequate personnel with relevant expertise and experience, are all contributing factors to these issues,” she wrote. 

The fire at Highland High was definitely ruled as accidental, and the loss will be covered by the district’s insurer.

Inspectors warned of fire hazards at Highland for years

In November 2022, just months before the blaze left parts of Highland High in ashes, a state inspector documented a number of fire safety issues at the school. 

In the cafeteria where the fire started, the stage curtains were flagged for not being fire rated. The inspector, Russell Sidell, flagged it as an issue for the fourth time in a row that year: “MULTI YEAR REPEAT,” he typed in capital letters on the report. 

There were other repeat issues — like outdated exit signs and dangerously cluttered cheer, wrestling and storage rooms. The racquetball court and choir room needed decluttering as well, though those were first-time offenses.

Storage areas where too much junk accumulates can “constitute hazards from tripping, fire, explosion or pest harborage,” school inspection reports often read, citing Idaho code. 

 In April, many of those messy areas burned to the ground. 

There had been repeated fire and safety hazards in prior years, too, ranging in severity and including:

  • Storage on top of the stage ceiling/roof (where it shouldn’t be).
  • A bandroom repeatedly storing a gas-powered generator. “REPEAT FULL OF FUEL!!,” Sidell typed in capital letters on one report. 
  • Combustible materials were stored where they shouldn’t be.
  • The welding area lacked appropriate ventilation “7TH YEAR REPEAT,” Sidell wrote.

And those were just issues in the section of the high school that was most affected by the fire, the D-wing. Since 2020, numerous issues were flagged in other parts of the building, including:

  • Missing ceiling tiles, which can delay sprinklers and detectors from activating during a fire, “enabling fires to rapidly grow larger,” according to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights
  • Using electrical rooms as storage areas
  • Exits blocked by furniture
  • Non-operational emergency lighting
  • Disorganized store rooms
  • A drama storage building so cluttered it could not be entered safely “MULTI YEAR REPEAT,” Sidell wrote.

Those reports came from the Division of Occupational & Professional Licenses; the PFD inspections noted some of the same issues. In November 2022, for example, the PFD called attention to:

  • A fire alarm panel in trouble mode: “Needs to be serviced ASAP,” the inspector, Dean Bullock, wrote.
  • And the stage curtains that were not fire rated.

Fisher said the district “works diligently to address concerns raised through the reporting process.”

Outdated exit signs, for example, are being replaced at one or two schools each year; the district is training staff on safety protocols; and the district replaced Highland’s welding exhaust system in the summer of 2022 — a project that cost about $225,000. 

“Often, specific items may be flagged over the course of a few years before the district has enough funds allocated to completely address them,” she wrote. 

As far as cluttered areas, she said “adequate storage is a challenge for most schools.”

Inspections can be ineffective and ignored without follow-up or consequences

Bob McLaughlin, the spokesperson for DOPL (the agency that oversees school inspections), said that whether schools make recommended fixes varies widely, and depends on an array of factors, including:

  • The school’s principal/leadership
  • The school’s level of funding/budget
  • Staff perception of whether the issues are serious/worth attention
  • How expensive a fix is — the more dollars the fix takes, the more likely it will be put off

Statutorily, school leaders are not necessarily required to make the fixes DOPL inspectors identify, unless they constitute an imminent or serious safety hazard — one likely to cause death or serious injury — like a roof that’s ready to cave in at any minute. And those cases are rare, McLaughlin said.

Even then, school administrators have weeks to a year to fix the issue depending on its severity, and can get extensions, according to Idaho code.

Fire departments have “more teeth” behind their recommendations, as McLaughlin put it. 

Nick Christensen, the assistant chief for the Pocatello Fire Department, said schools must address any fire code violations the PFD identifies.

If it’s an easy fix — like taking paper decorations off doors and walls — it’s made right away. If it’s something more time-consuming or expensive (like buying new fire-rated curtains or having them treated), the department gives the school district more time to get it done. 

If the district didn’t make a fix after being given ample opportunity, Christensen said the PFD could cite school leaders with a misdemeanor — a scenario he said would be highly unlikely. 

Admittedly, Christensen said the PFD wasn’t following up on those long-term fixes like it should have before the Highland fire — largely due to its small inspection staff and heavy workload (there are 2,500 to 3,000 businesses in town the department is responsible for inspecting). 

Since the Highland fire, the PFD is making a point to follow up more regularly — and the inspection records show that to be the case.

After the fire, Pocatello school leaders responded to flagged violations more quickly, and the fire department followed up

The PFD inspected Highland on Aug. 22, 2023, two days before students returned to school for the first time since the fire. The inspector identified a number of safety issues, including:

  • Missing ceiling tiles
  • A hole in the ceiling where water ran down a wall with electrical outlets
  • Piggybacked extension cords in 10 different classrooms and areas
  • Missing outlet covers
  • Emergency lights not working in five classrooms, an office, the library, and in five locations near, on, or under the auditorium stage. 
  • Exit signs that needed to be replaced or fixed, and one exit sign that lead to a closed room
  • Exits obstructed in a classroom and in the auditorium
  • A door that wouldn’t close
  • Parts missing from a few sprinklers
  • A few classrooms exceeding occupancy limits

“No one is to use or occupy the auditorium until all fire and life safety systems are fully operational and signed off by fire department,” the inspector, Kimberly Stouse, wrote. 

The PFD followed up in October, and most issues were addressed. Of the issues that remained, one was familiar: stage curtains (on a second stage that survived the fire) that were not fire-tested or fire-treated. The district plans to replace those this summer, and will evaluate the need to replace curtains at other schools, Fisher said.

Since the fire, the district has also “taken steps to proactively address issues and incorporate lessons learned in the aftermath of the Highland High School fire,” Fisher wrote. 

Those efforts include “raising awareness for district safety protocols and reporting requirements” and servicing the fire alarm system control panel at every school. 

Other Idaho high schools have fallen behind safety maintenance, too

EdNews requested inspection records from 2021-2023 at four high schools similar in age and size to Highland, and most showed safety issues that had not been addressed from one year to the next, or one-time fire safety issues.

A common issue inspectors cited was piggybacked power cords and missing ceiling tiles. Another is excessive paper decorations on classroom doors and in hallways; all are relatively quick fixes. Dangerously cluttered rooms and areas were also common issues.

Here are some examples of what else inspectors flagged, and whether school leaders fixed it by the next year:

Capital High, Boise School District:

  • In Nov. 2022, a band teacher was storing a generator and container of gas in his classroom. 
  • In November 2021, there was not a clear pathway to the riser room, where the automatic sprinkler system was installed.
  • In January 2021, curtains were hanging over a heater and starting to fade from the heat. The curtains were flagged as not being fire rated. 
  • Repeat issue: The chemistry room was missing an updated inventory. 
    • Also, acids and flammables were stored together instead of separately.
  • These are just some of the issues flagged. Read the full inspection reports here

Twin Falls High, Twin Falls School District:

  • Repeat issue: In April 2021, inspector Jeff Harris flagged, for a third time, desks in a classroom blocking the exit. 
  • April 2022: Issues identified such as electrical rooms not labeled; electrical panels obstructed; exit routes obstructed; and doors shutting too fast. 
  • March 2023: Issues identified included storing items too close to sprinklers; doors closing too fast; and an obstructed electrical panel.
  • These are just some of the issues flagged. Read the full inspection reports here.  

Idaho Falls High, Idaho Falls School District:

  • In February 2022, Inspector Russell Sidell indicated a trouble light on a fire panel. 
  • Repeat issue: Feb 2022: Sidell noted that “there are a number of very small classrooms in facility and large numbers of students. Need to monitor. MULTI YEAR REPEAT.”
  • Repeat issue: Feb. 2022: Cords running through ceilings due to overhead projector monitors. “MULTI YEAR REPEAT.” This was the ninth year it had been repeated.
  • Repeat issue: Feb. 2022: Storage rooms are very unkempt, including in the basement and cheerleader storage. “MULTI YEAR REPEAT.”
  • April 2023: The Idaho Falls Fire Department identified these violations, among others:
    • Fire extinguisher missing in a lab. 
    • Fire pull alarms on the second floor “still in need of repair”
    • The fire department gave the district 60 days to address all the violations, or create a “reasonable approved plan going forward to facilitate addressing these violations.”
  • These are just some of the issues flagged. Read the full inspection reports here

Minico High, Minidoka County School District:

  • In Sept. 2021, Inspector Jeff Harris noted that multiple fire doors were blocked with a wedge. 
  • Sept. 2021: Exit and emergency lights were missing in the auditorium. 
  • Sept. 2021: Emergency evacuation maps, with primary and secondary routes of egress, need to be added throughout the facility. 
  • Repeat issue: Piggybacked power cords were identified, for a fifth year, Harris wrote on the report.
  • Sept. 2022: An attic access hole needs to be closed. 
  • Sept. 2022: Chemistry storage issues were identified, including a need for proper disposal of outdated chemicals, chemicals shouldn’t be stored on the floor or above eye level of instructor. 
  • Repeat issue: Sept. 2023: Cords are still piggybacked. 
  • Repeat issue: Sept. 2023: Chemistry storage issues were still not addressed. 
  • Sept. 2023: Emergency light by gym not working. 
  • These are just some of the issues flagged. Read the full inspection reports here

“(Pocatello) schools are not unique in facing maintenance and safety challenges,” Fisher wrote. “Systemic factors contributing to the difficulty in maintaining school facilities include aging infrastructure, limited resources, and complex regulatory requirements.”

Overwhelming school maintenance needs are a “systemic issue”

School leaders said safety issues are addressed as best as possible. 

Eva Craner, the Twin Falls School District’s spokesperson, said that most of the issues identified in the reports are fixed right away. 

“Some items might take slightly longer because materials need to be ordered or for more extensive projects, we might have to wait until the summer,” she wrote in an email. “Regardless, any high-risk items are a priority and will be addressed as quickly as possible.”

She said some issues are constantly recurring, sometimes because teachers or students may not understand the dangers of moving desks in front of exits, or decorating doors/hallways with paper (showcasing student work, etc.). Other times it’s because schools are older, and when one issue is addressed, another pops up. 

“Our staff members are generally focused on educating students and not so concerned about too many posters or decorations on their walls, ensuring that the items they place on the top shelf aren’t too close to the sprinklers, etc.,” she wrote. 

Craner said the district responds to issues as soon as possible, but “as with anything that requires upkeep, if districts were able to allocate funding to ongoing maintenance, it would enable us to be more proactive.”

Idaho Falls School District has also addressed many of the issues that came up in recent inspections, Spokesperson Margaret Wimborne said, including: ongoing cleaning and organizing of storage rooms; overhead projectors have been replaced; the fire panel was fixed in July 2023; fire alarm pull stations were repaired in November 2023; and excess furniture has been cleared.

However, small classrooms remain due to the cost of replacing them.

Boise School District Spokesperson Dan Hollar said the district corrects safety issues “at the time of inspection or shortly thereafter” and is “committed to decreasing any repeat issues through the education of our staff.”

“We take all matters of safety seriously and work to remedy any identified issues to the best of our ability,” he said.

Fisher said overwhelming school maintenance needs are a “systemic issue.” She had some ideas for resolving it:

  • Investing in preventive maintenance programs
  • Providing additional training for staff
  • Leveraging technology for facility management
  • Advocating for increased funding for school infrastructure

Adopting legislation like House Bill 521, which would provide additional funding for school facilities, would also help, she said. 

“(Pocatello/Chubbuck)  has a high standard of safety and will continue to raise the level of that standard to ensure the safety and well-being of its 12,000+ learners and 1,700 staff members,” she wrote. 

EdNews reached out to the Minidoka County School District for comment, but after more than four business days, had not heard back. 

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. 

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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