Engineers union: DPS boiler regulations could hurt kids

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — Members of a local engineers union asked a judge Tuesday to reverse a city decision to replace most public school building boiler operators with a remote monitoring system.

Wayne County Circuit Judge David Allen indicated he would issue a ruling in several weeks on the lawsuit filed in March by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 324. The union is asking Allen to overturn a decision exempting Detroit Public Schools buildings from an ordinance requiring an on-site engineer to monitor boilers.

“Essentially, DPS is going to replace those operators with a video camera,” union secretary Tom Scott said during an early morning protest prior to Tuesday’s hearing.

The district’s exception was issued last year on the basis of financial hardship, he said.

The new technology would save approximately $3 million annually, to be directed back into the classroom, district spokeswoman Jennifer Mrozowski said in March. The plan would leave 15 engineers to oversee 75 schools in the district.

Under the proposed plan, the school district would install an automated system to monitor the status of a building’s boilers, Scott said. One licensed engineer stationed remotely would then use video feeds to monitor boilers at five different school buildings.

The system has the ability to alert monitors to potential issues with a boiler, such as low water levels or that an automatic shut-off has occurred, Scott said. It is not designed to report an equipment malfunction and cannot remotely shut down the boiler.

“It’s a system that monitors,” union attorney Andrew Nickelhoff said in court Tuesday. “What it doesn’t do is get in there and intervene and solve the problem.”

Engineers would have to be dispatched to the schools to correct issues with boiler equipment, Scott said at the protest.

“Boilers operate heavily in the winter months, so should that (remote) operator have to react to an unsafe situation, he or she would need to travel through the city on snow-covered roads,” Scott said. “Who knows if they’ll make it in time.”

Scott also said the system would cause problems if boilers at two different buildings required simultaneous attention.

“How does the engineer decide which student population is more valuable than the next?” he said.

In court Tuesday, Nickelhoff rejected city and district attorneys’ claim the new system would result in 5-minute response times.

“It’s not realistic. It’s not plausible,” he said. “We know from the response times from emergency personnel in Detroit that it’s not within the realm of possibility, and it’s irresponsible to make a decision like this based on that bogus decision.”

Allen on Tuesday repeatedly expressed concern over a “slippery slope” of additional buildings applying for similar exceptions to the ordinance.

“When it comes to safety, the slippery slope really bothers me,” Allen said. “We’ll put some whiz-bang technology in there, and then in the next building, and the next building, and then why have this ordinance at all?”

School district attorney LeRoy Asher on Tuesday said the ordinance was written in the 1940s in response to coal-fed boiler systems that lacked modern safety measures.

City and school district pfficials argued the monitoring system would make school buildings safer by immediately alerting several people by text if a problem arises, as opposed to such issues being discovered only when a boiler operator passes through on rounds.

“(The district is) saving money and safety would be enhanced by installing the monitoring system,” city attorney Viollca Serifovski said.

The new plan also would involve installation of updated equipment through out the district, school officials said.

“DPS' plan to install new technologies and reduce the number of boiler engineers will in no way put children or staff in danger,” spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said. “In fact, the City of Detroit had experts on the Board of Appeals who determined that the changes being made within the District will provide greater levels of safety within our school buildings.

“These changes include the installation of more efficient and smaller boilers, as well as automated monitoring systems that have automatic shutoffs that are already being employed in other school districts throughout the state and the country.”

Allen suggested the case might best be solved by amending the ordinance itself.

“Go to the city council and have them change the ordinance,” Allen said in court Tuesday. “Because right now, we’ve got one class for school children and one class for everybody else. You agree the optics aren’t great.”

The judge indicated it may not be within his power to reverse the city’s decision.

“I don’t know if that’s my call,” he said. “I have my opinions but I am bound by the law and records below.”

Detroit is one of only three Michigan cities with an ordinance requiring on-site boiler operators, Asher said in court. He listed several cities without the requirement, including Flint.

“Please don’t use Flint,” Allen said. “They just had an explosion in one of their schools.”

A boiler room explosion in February prompted an evacuation at the Whaley Children’s Center in Flint, according to a Flint Journal report. There were no injuries and no children were in the building at the time.

Nickelhoff said the system’s weakness is its inability to remotely shut down a boiler or detect an equipment malfunction.

“A mechanical device is supposed to shut the boiler down (if there is a problem), and the issue is if the device fails — and they do fail,” Nickelhoff said. “Then what happens? What’s supposed to happen under the city’s ordinance is you want someone on-hand, in attendance, within a certain specified distance, to attend quickly to that situation.”

The judge offered several comparisons to an in-house boiler operator, including the presence of a Wayne County sheriff’s deputy in court Tuesday.

“Ninty-nine percent of the time nothing happens, but he’s here for that one time,” Allen said of the deputy. “One time we may have an incident in the courtroom, or something goes haywire with the boiler, and we need a body there right now.”

Earlier Tuesday, Scott joined about 30 people to protest the plan outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal building, where the hearing took place.

“DPS is running very fast and loose with the plans,” Scott said at the protest. “They’ve been focused on financial savings. I don’t know how much money justifies putting one child or teacher in harm’s way.”

Engineer Thomas Townsel, 42, said at the protest Tuesday that machines cannot replace highly trained employees.

“It’s all about safety,” said Townsel, a Detroiter who has worked as a boiler engineer for 16 years at DPS buildings, the Renaissance Center and Wayne State University.

“This is very powerful, very dangerous equipment that needs to be monitored,” he said. “The equipment is very old. You have to watch it.”

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