A Menlo Park school that suffered at least $400,000 in damage did not have an electronic monitored fire alarm or sprinklers - systems that the city's fire chief said Friday could have probably prevented a lot less damage.
Not having such a system is not illegal at private schools, and public schools built before 2008.
But Menlo Park Fire Districts Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman stressed that not having such an electronic alarm when no one is there - especially when fires spark during off school hours - can be detrimental. This was evidenced, he pointed out, during the 3:45 a.m. fire Thursday at the private, nonprofit Beechwood Elementary on Terminal Avenue.
"If we knew there was a problem," Schapelhouman said, "we can respond and arrive more quickly."
On Friday morning, crews busy with backhoes were cleaning up massive mounds of charred debris, and scattered children's games and supplies - the ones that actually survived the fire. The third grade portable, computers and paper records were destroyed.
Beechwood does has a manual pull-down fire alarm system. But that works only when a person pulls a lever to alert the fire department of an emergency.
Beechwood's principal David Laurance told NBC Bay Area that his small school had annual fire inspections each year and that he followed the letter of the law. Still, he added that there were longstanding plans to remove the portables in June, and construct new, permanent buildings in their place.
As for plans to install a modernized system in the new buildings, Laurance said: "I think there's always lessons to be learned... certainly something that we’ll have to take a look at in light of what’s happened."
But he stopped short of promising a fire alarm upgrade at the school until he could figure out what the law would require and what his community could afford.
"All of (our families) come from ... lower income neighborhoods here East Palo Alto," he said, "and so yeah, cost is always a consideration."
Schapelhouman said while automated fire alarms may cost money, the cost of the damage afterward usually always costs a lot more. In this case, the damage estimates are near half a million dollars, and the years of work and teacher supplies lost are priceless.
The fire was likely smoldering for at least an hour before a neighbor spotted it and called 911, and at first, mistakenly gave the wrong address, Schapelhouman said.
Investigators have now determined a pinched electrical cord to the stove in the kitchen was the source of the fire when it shorted out.
The school has insurance, but Laurance did tell NBC Bay Area on Thursday that he'd be seeking community donations to replace some of the lost items.
Schapelhouman said this is the second instance this year where a school was damaged more than it should have been because it didn't have an electronic fire alarm system or sprinkler. That school is quarter of a mile away.
One of the biggest recent fires at a school in Silicon Valley where there was also no electronic monitoring was the Trace Elementary School fire in San Jose, which was police say was set by two teenage boys in July 2011 and caused more than $15 million in damage.
That school had no automatic fire alarms and sprinklers, and the private alarm-monitoring company sent an email to district officials, rather than calling them. That delay meant the fire burned 23 minutes before firefighters could arrive, findings that were reported in a Santa Clara County civil grand jury report.
A state law was enacted after a 1997 fire at Green Oaks Academy in East Palo Alto - a blaze that Schapelhouman's department battled - that mandated any public school built after 2008 have electronic alarms and sprinklers. In a story first reported by the Mercury News, San Jose Unified claimed that Trace's 2007 remodel was exempt from the law because it was funded with local bonds, and no state money.
Schapelhouman had relentlessly lobbied for the "Green Oaks Family Academy Elementary School Fire Protection Act," after the school suffered $3 million in damage because the campus had no automatic fire and sprinkler system, as detailed in a 2008 San Mateo County civil grand jury report.
The law states: Schools with modernization projects that cost more than $200,000 must install fire alarm systems directly connected to an approved supervising station and that schools with new construction approved after 2008 are required to have automated alarm systems that connect directly to alarm companies.
Schools built earlier than that do not have to install such a system. In 2008, the grand jury found that 45 percent of the elementary and middle schools in San Mateo County had electronic systems that weren't directly hooked up to alarm companies, or manual systems with no plans to upgrade.
In 2009, the grand jury noted that seven school districts countywide had complied with their recommendations to upgrade their fire alarm systems. The grand jury also noted that the remaining five districts in the county three years ago - the last year the information was made available - hoped to upgrade, but noted financial constraints.
Beechwood School is a private nonprofit school and its portable buildings have been in place since 1986.