Questions arise about evacuation plan for new Paterson school location
PATERSON – Some local officials are questioning whether the downtown office building being converted to classrooms for about 400 Paterson high school students provides safe escape routes in case of emergencies.
The Paterson planning board signed off on the new building last week in a 4-3 vote in which members voting against the proposal said they were concerned about the evacuation plan.
Planning board member Nelly Celi said that if the main lobby exits were blocked in an emergency, the building’s occupants would have to climb down one fire escape down to second floors, cross a walkway to an adjacent building, go down another fire escape to street level and follow an alley to Church Street to get out.
“That’s a maze,” said Celi. “I just don’t think it’s safe.”
The school district is planning to relocate its HARP and YES academies to the office building, which is located at the corner of Colt and Ellison streets across from City Hall. For years. HARP has been housed in the old outdoor Paterson mall, a facility that itself was the target of state-issued safety violation, many involving slippery conditions in rain and ice.
Planning board member Eddie Gonzalez said he shared his colleagues concerns about the evacuation plans at the renovated Colt Street building. But he said he voted in favor of the proposal because he thought the conditions at the previous HARP site were more dangerous than those at the new location.
The new location still needs approvals from the state education department as well as the city fire department.
School district officials have a tentative $495,000 per year lease for the seven-story Colt Street building. They said the owner, 5 Colt Street, LLC, is installing all requisite safety measures.”
“The city code officials review and approve all drawings, and the building must pass all code inspections prior to occupancy,” said the district’s facilities director, Steve Morlino, in a written statement. “Significant life safety improvements have be incorporated as a part of the renovation of this building, and according to the architect’s calculations the occupant load is within the acceptable parameters. In addition there is a new state of the art addressable fire alarm system installed as part of the renovation.”
District spokeswoman Terry Corallo said the Colt Street building has two exits at the lobby level.
“Students requiring special accommodations will be addressed by the school principal and incorporated into the fire egress plan,” Corallo said. “There are two elevators available at all levels as well as holding areas which provide a safe haven while awaiting fire department personnel. The building has been retrofitted with fire sprinklers throughout.”
School board president Jonathan Hodges said he toured the Colt Street building and looked over the fire escapes. Hodges said he was told the landlord would be installed “re-fortified” fire escapes to replace the ones that were there previously.
Hodges said the district would not have to convert an office building into a school if the state provided Paterson with better facilities as well as the authority to enter into a lease-purchase agreement for HARP. “We’re forced to take this inadequate and desperate approach to our facilities,” Hodges said.
Another school board member, Corey Teague, said he had been concerned about the safety at the new building but was assured by district officials that there were two separate exits.
John McEntee Jr., president of the city teachers’ union, said the location was being evaluated by its worksite safety committee. “It certainly is not a good idea to have our students and staff using a fire escape,” said McEntee. “That would raise concerns for me.”
The Colt Street site has received approval from the city’s fire sub-code official in its building division, officials said. Paterson Fire Chief Michael Postorino said the fire department’s safety inspectors do not check new facilities until after the building offices issue a certificate of occupancy. For the new school location, the chief said the inspection would be done immediately after the certificate were issued.
Postorino declined to comment on whether he thought the evacuation plan was safe. “I’d have to see it all to be in better position to make that type of determination,” the chief said.
Celi said she thought the district ought to provide parents of HARP and YES academies with detailed information about the evacuation plan. “They should know about the building where their children are going to,” said Celi.