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Firefighters called to Whitehorse Elementary School over code violations

Door that occasionally wouldn’t open from inside among many issues that need attention, parent says
Thane Phillips, who serves on the Whitehorse Elementary school council and has a son in Grade 1, is photographed outside the school on June 13. Concerned over fire code violations at the school, Phillips tipped off the fire department, which inspected the issues and found the school to be unsafe. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Fire code violations at Whitehorse Elementary School that threatened to shut down the school this week have been resolved, the city’s fire department has concluded, describing the situation as a result of “communications errors between the Department of Education and (Highways and Public Works) property management.”

The city released the statement June 13 after the fire department determined the building could remain open.

Firefighters responded to a June 12 complaint from a parent that doors were not functioning properly and therefore not meeting national codes.

“It was determined that the parent’s concern was well founded as two egress doors did not meet National Fire or National Building Code requirements,” Whitehorse Fire Department officials said. “In addition, it was found that an emergency lighting fixture did not function as required.”

Officials with both territorial departments were informed they had 24 hours to address the issues with a subsequent inspection scheduled for 8:30 a.m. June 13.

That inspection determined the issues were addressed and the school would remain open for the final two days of classes.

The issues have been building for months, say two school council members who argue there is more work needed for the aging building, which opened as a high school in 1952.

Thane Phillips, who serves on the school council and has a son in Grade 1, said continued repairs have been made to the door on the side of the building next to Black Street, but it continues to break and when it does it can’t be open from the inside or out.

On another side of the school facing Third Avenue, just one half of the double doors seem to function properly.

If there were ever a fire, Phillips said there would be a bottleneck getting out and those in the school could be in serious danger if the nearest door out doesn’t open.

Realizing the urgency of the situation, he called the fire department.

“These concerns were taken very seriously,” he said, adding property management staff also on the scene saw the importance of the matter and worked throughout the day to address the issues.

There have been many times throughout the school year that property management staff has fixed the door only to have it break again, Phillips said, and calls to have it fully replaced seem to go unanswered.

“It’s a design flaw,” he said of the current door.

He said that he couldn’t be happier with the education his son his getting at Whitehorse Elementary School, but there’s a lot of work needed for the aging building. That work goes beyond the more urgent need to replace doors and emergency lighting.

There’s no functioning washroom on the second floor, Phillips noted. For younger students that means a long jaunt to get to a bathroom.

The school also cannot have a full school assembly in the gym as a larger egress out of the gym is needed, so assemblies are split up with classes attending at different times.

That impacts the culture of the school, Phillips said.

“We don’t have a school Christmas concert.”

Instead, students in Grades K to 3 do one performance followed by a show featuring the Grades 4 to 7 students another night.

Phys-ed class in the gym is also fairly limited.

Solutions have been proposed, Phillips said. A change room no longer used on the second floor could be renovated for a bathroom and possibilities for a new egress out of the gym have been put to officials.

School administration have jumped through bureaucratic hoops at the Department of Education as well as Highways and Public Works many times to bring light to the situation at the school, he said.

And while the territory has said renovation work is planned, there seems to be few details on exactly what that means and when it will be done, Phillips said.

Carbon monoxide detectors in the school are also in need of replacing. While they function properly, they are past their expiry date. The territory has told the school council it is waiting on parts for that to happen, Phillips said.

Another member of school council, Jeff Wolosewich, expressed similar concerns.

“It’s very cut and dry for me, as a parent as well (as someone) on school council, you either fix the building so it’s safe or we don’t use it,” he said June 12, ahead of the Whitehorse Fire Department’s June 13 inspection. “And we can’t wait for backorder parts and send kids to school while the building’s not meeting fire code.”

In an email, Highways and Public Works spokesperson Doris Wurfbaum, speaking on behalf of Education as well, stated the emergency lighting issue had been found during regular maintenance and repairs were already underway. The two doors are set to be fully repaired on June 17, but are now functioning as egress doors and are checked several times per day with the check logged by staff. Officials also confirmed the parts for the CO sensors are on order, though the system is fully functional.

“The health and safety of students and staff is the first priority of the Department of Education,” Wurfbaum wrote.

Planned work for the summer will ensure the school remains safe for the 490 students and user groups ahead of the 2019/2020 school year.

In light of the situation, the Whitehorse Fire Department is reminding all property owners to follow national fire and building code regulations.

“The Whitehorse Fire Department will investigate all reports of buildings failing to meet National Fire Code standards and will determine appropriate compliance measures that need to be implemented in order to ensure the safety of the public based on the seriousness of the deficiency or violation.”

With files from Jackie Hong

Contact Stephanie Waddell at

Stephanie Waddell

About the Author: Stephanie Waddell

I joined Black Press in 2019 as a reporter for the Yukon News, becoming editor in February 2023.
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