In December, Tisbury building inspector Ross Seavey walked through the Tisbury School with Fire Chief John Schilling, made a number of code violation observations, and wrote up a punch list of corrective actions. In accordance with state building code, Seavey issued a certificate of inspection for the school, which both he and Chief Schilling signed. The certificate stands as the only one of its kind the building department and school officials have on record since 2009. Following a records request by The Times, the only previous building code inspection certificates the building department and school officials could muster were two 2009 “sufficient means of egress” certificates for separate kindergarten classrooms. Those certificates were signed by former building inspector Ken Barwick. What other inspections may have occurred, if any, between April 9, 2009, the date of issuance for those kindergarten certificates, and Dec. 31, 2019, the date of issuance for the Schilling-Seavey certificate, is a mystery. Repeated calls to Barwick have not been returned. Seavey, who is new to the job, has been unable to shed any light.
Tisbury School Principal John Custer told The Times that he only encountered the kindergarten certificates recently, and the documents were new to him.
“I became principal in 2011,” he wrote in an email. “I do not recall receiving any similar certificates, until this past December (2019).”
In an email to The Times, Seavey wrote that his inspection was pursuant to the state building code, and is required annually. Seavey quoted a portion of the code that guided his examination of the school: “All buildings and structures and all parts thereof, both existing and new, and all systems and equipment therein which are regulated by 780 CMR shall be maintained in a safe, operable and sanitary condition. All service equipment, means of egress, devices and safeguards which are required in a building or structure, or which were required by a previous statute in a building or structure, when erected, altered or repaired, shall be maintained in good working order.”
The regulation has been on the books for a long time, according to a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards.
“The school inspection certificate regulations began in 1975, when the first uniform State Building Code was developed and enforced throughout the commonwealth,” Carolyn Assa,
director of communications for the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, wrote.
Schilling said his department inspects the school annually prior to the start of the school year. His inspections cover alarms, sprinklers, and life-safety issues, among other areas pursuant to regulations that are specific to school fire safety. In the past, he said, he found school officials to be “responsive to requests” whenever they have been made by his department. Going forward, he said he and Seavey have agreed to conduct a midyear inspection of the school together. Schilling said he deemed it “prudent” to do so, even though the law doesn’t require it, because a populated school presents a different inspection atmosphere than an empty one does. The joint certificate, he said, is a first for Tisbury.
The punch list Schilling and Seavey generated contains a number of minor fixes such as missing switch plates, trussing up dangling wires, and replacing emergency light batteries. It also contains some potentially more serious items such as “pipe covering in hallway needs to be put back on to prevent scalding” and “seal off door to space below gym floor — rodent evidence found” and “fix doors and wall leading to outside with sharp exposed rusty metal.”
On Feb. 11, Seavey emailed to indicate a majority of the punch list items had been addressed.
“Almost all items highlighted in yellow have been addressed, with the remaining few to be addressed in the immediate future or over school vacation,” he wrote. On Tuesday, Seavey emailed an update.
“I have been to the school since the original inspection to see if all highlighted items were taken care of,” he wrote. “All highlighted items were taken care of except one or two electrical items which the school said they would take care of over the school vacation. All other items will be checked at our next inspection.”
Hot cast iron
During a public Tisbury School Building Committee tour of the school on Feb. 18, an engineer pointed out children could scald themselves by touching one of the school’s steam radiators if it were set at higher temperatures. The engineer dispensed that information when a committee member asked, regarding a radiator, “That one’s not going to burn anybody today?”
Wayne Mattson of Griffith and Vary, Inc., said not today. But he added, “You know when the steam is on, that will get 210, 230°.”
Mattson went on to say, “When schools of this vintage were built in the 1920s, oil or coal was dirt-cheap, and people would just put these radiators in and you controlled the temperature by just opening your window.”
Mattson said some of the school’s radiators are now fitted with “Danfoss valves,” for regulating temperature.
Asked by The Times if a school radiator would burn a pupil if they touched it when the heat was high, Mattson said it would.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, referring to a radiator in the nurse’s office, “if this was cranking full-heat and some kid went up there and just held his hand on there, he would.”
He went on to say he believed students could sense the heat and therefore the danger, and would be disinclined to touch a radiator.
However, pointing to an exam table in the nurse’s office set against a radiator, he said, “Say a kid rolls over, rolls up against it, and he’s sick.” Mattson did not finish the thought, but made his point.
Ryan Curran, owner of New England SteamWorks, a Providence company that specializes in servicing steam systems throughout Rhode Island and Eastern Massachusetts, said, “Steam [heat] is simplicity itself,” and expressed regret it isn’t used much anymore. He said he knew of no law that requires a steam radiator to be covered in a school.
The Times has been unable to immediately verify with the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards whether any law exists to cover radiators.
“A kid’s going to touch it once — they’re never going to touch it again,” Curran said.
Sandi Castleman, co-owner of Sandy Castle custom furniture in Fall River, said her company does a brisk business building radiator covers. In part, she said, customers want to simply hide them, though often it’s also for safety reasons.
As numerous outlets previously reported, in New Jersey, a legal fight over whether a radiator needs to be covered went all the way to the state supreme court after a 9-month-old baby rolled onto a cast iron radiator and suffered third-degree burns to the face and head. That court split 5-2 in ruling there was no requirement to cover a radiator in that state. And while the case was landlord/tenant-related, as opposed to school-related, it underscored how hot such radiators can become, and the potential damage they might cause.
In an earlier email, Custer told The Times he does not recall a radiator burn occuring at the Tisbury School; however, he noted that until he speaks with the school nurse, he cannot confirm none have taken place. He expects to speak with the nurse after February vacation.
On Feb. 6, during a joint interview with D’Andrea, Tisbury School Committee chair Amy Houghton refused to say whether she believed steam radiators in the Tisbury School needed coverings or were safe.
Seavey told The Times that while present building codes could potentially classify the Tisbury School’s steam radiators as a scalding hazard, he does not know that for sure, and would “have to dig into the code” to determine the answer. Regardless, he deemed them effectively grandfathered because they were up to code when the school was erected. He knew of no specific code governing steam radiator safety in schools, and surmised the relative uncommonness of them in Massachusetts schools today may be why there’s been no regulatory push.
Despite the grandfathering of the radiators themselves, Seavey found two instances where steam pipes that feed the radiators were uncovered, and required covering “to prevent scalding.”
One spot was in Room 101, the other in the music room behind the stage. In both instances, Seavey indicated on the aforementioned punch list that coverings that were previously on the pipes needed to be replaced. Because he could see insulation coverings had previously been on the pipes, he wanted them restored to the way they were.
“This isn’t an exact science,” he said. Nevertheless, he said he tries “to exercise best judgment.”