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‘Safe to re-enter:’ Oconomowoc HS reopens; carbon monoxide source unknown

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OCONOMOWOC -- Oconomowoc High School and the Oconomowoc Arts Center will re-open for school on Monday, March 26, for regular school hours and operation, officials announced on Sunday.

According to a statement on the school district's Facebook page, with the help of "Environmental Management Consulting, Inc.," officials have been monitoring the air quality inside the high school and arts center and can confirm the building is safe to re-enter.

This, after 176 students and faculty were treated for carbon monoxide symptoms. Officials still don't know what caused the increase in carbon monoxide, and that has caused some concern for students after an unexpected long weekend.

PHOTO GALLERY

"Just kind of concerned that they are letting us back in when they don't even know what the source is," said Augie Gelting, OHS junior.

Augie Gelting

Gelting was evacuated on Thursday, March 22, along with all of the other students and staff at the school, after dozens reported felling ill. Some even passed out. It started in the OAC, adjacent to OHS, where Silver Lake Intermediate students were rehearsing for a choir concert. Gelting said his cousin was there.

"She said that people were dropping like flies. It's an experience she's never had before," said Gelting.

Classes were canceled on Thursday and Friday and many students were forced to leave their cars, backpacks and cellphones behind because of the quick precautions.

Oconomowoc High School

Oconomowoc High School

"It was chaotic. It was kinda -- it all just happened at once and so quick," said Gelting.

In all, 176 people were evaluated for carbon monoxide symptoms -- some taken to the hospital. After a weekend of air quality testing, school officials said carbon monoxide levels never rose above safety standards. In fact, they said the school's working carbon monoxide detectors never even went off. They still don't know what caused the sickness.

Oconomowoc Arts Center

The evacuation and closure came at a difficult time. The third term was set to end on Friday, March 23 and tests are now being pushed to this coming week.

"It's just a lot of stuff to do. I know I have a lot of stuff to do and catch up on," said Gelting.

School leaders said the boiler and hot water heater are the only pieces of equipment that could've produced carbon monoxide. Both checked out fine.

The full air quality update released Sunday is available below:

Oconomowoc High School (OHS) and the Oconomowoc Arts Center (OAC) will re-open for school on Monday, March 26, for regular school hours and operation.  With the help of Environmental Management Consulting, Inc. (EMC), we have been monitoring the air quality inside OHS and the OAC since the afternoon on Thursday, March 22. Since approximately noon on Friday, March 23, the EMC equipment has found no carbon monoxide (CO) reading above 1 part per million (ppm), either in the OAC or other places throughout the school.  We had Western Lakes Fire District representatives in the building on Friday, March 23, and Saturday, March 24, to check for carbon monoxide and both times they detected no CO. The minor difference between the EMC and Western Lakes carbon monoxide readings is credited to the highly specialized equipment provided by EMC, which can detect much lower levels of pollutants than the Western Lakes equipment.

On Friday, March 23, we were informed by Western Lakes Fire District Chief Brad Bowen, that five individuals treated at area hospitals were found to have slightly elevated blood levels of carbon monoxide.  Those blood levels ranged from 2.3 ppm to 3.1 ppm, and these individuals were monitored, then released.

Dr. Timothy Westlake, Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Prohealth Care Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, cited toxicology literature that an individual would likely not experience clinical symptoms until carbon monoxide blood levels exceeded 10 ppm.  The vast majority of patients tested that day, had normal blood levels.

At the afternoon briefing on Friday, March 23, with EMC, Western Lakes Fire District, and Butters-Fetting, we were informed that equipment inside the OAC showed slightly elevated levels of carbon monoxide (CO).  Over a period of several hours, levels slowly rose to a maximum of 5 ppm, then declined to 0 ppm. While these levels were below the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standard of safety of 9 ppm, the District thought it was necessary to attempt to determine the source of these readings before allowing anyone into the building.  As a result, OHS and the OAC remained closed. All practices and events planned at OHS and the OAC for the weekend were also canceled.

On Saturday, March 24, the building continued to be monitored throughout the morning and no abnormal CO readings were found, either in the OAC or other places throughout the school. The OAC air handling units were scheduled as unoccupied overnight, which means they were not moving any air. The hot water heater was turned on with the OAC air handling units still scheduled as unoccupied, and the impact of this move was monitored for a change in the OAC CO levels.  After four hours of operation there were no abnormal CO levels in the OAC. At 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, the Western Lakes Fire District inspected the OAC and adjacent spaces and also found no readings of carbon monoxide. As a result, the District, with the support of the Western Lakes Fire District, believed it was safe to allow students and staff into OHS to reclaim their belongings. CO levels continued to be monitored the entire time students and staff were in the building retrieving items, and levels remained normal.

Overnight on Saturday, the boiler in the OAC mechanical room continued to run, but the water heater was shut off in an attempt to once again isolate the source of the CO. The OAC air handling units were still set to unoccupied during this time. CO levels were monitored overnight, with the average CO reading of .4 ppm on the EMC equipment.  With no abnormal readings, the decision was made to bring the building back up to full operation and continue to monitor throughout the day on Sunday, March 25.

“We have had no levels above any recommended or regulatory limits,” said Bill Freeman, from Environmental Management Consulting, Inc. (EMC). He went on to say, “After over 30 years of testing air quality in schools and buildings of many types and sizes, we can say that the levels documented here are typical of normal school or similar building operations.”

EMC has worked with us directly since last Thursday, March 22, and was with us at our morning briefing meeting today (Sunday). As of 11:00 a.m. today (Sunday), we have had no readings above 1 ppm since the 5 ppm reading reported at our 12:00 p.m. briefing on Friday, March 23. Please remember that the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) safety standard is 9 ppm and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety standard is 50 ppm. We are bringing the building back up to fully occupied settings and will continue to monitor CO levels throughout the day and overnight.

We have isolated and tested the boiler and hot water heater in the OAC, the only pieces of equipment that could possibly produce carbon monoxide.  Each time this equipment was tested, no CO was detected. As a result, we have not been able to identify a source for the raised levels of CO in the OAC.  However, since the CO levels detected have always been below safety standards and have stayed below 1 ppm since the afternoon of Friday, March 23, we are intending to open OHS for normal school operations tomorrow, Monday, March 26.

We will have Western Lake Fire District, EMC, and District staff on-site prior to the start of school to ensure air quality remains safe for students and staff.  Going forward, we will continue to monitor CO levels in the OAC with equipment from EMC as well as additional monitors which have been placed throughout the building.

SUMMARY OF EVENTS AT OHS 

THURSDAY, MARCH 22, 2018:

  • At approximately 9:15 a.m. on Thursday, March 22, students from Silver Lake Intermediate School (SLI) were practicing for a Choir Concert in the Oconomowoc Arts Center (OAC) at Oconomowoc High School (OHS).
  • Shortly after rehearsal began several students started feeling lightheaded and nauseous. A medical alert was announced in the building and OHS Principal Jason Curtis, School Police Liaison Officer, Adam Parkhurst, and OHS staff responded immediately.
  • Out of an abundance of caution, students were evacuated from the building and police, fire, and medical responders arrived at school.  Students feeling ill were transported to area hospitals.
  • At the recommendation of the Oconomowoc Police Department, classes at OHS were canceled.  In an attempt to have an orderly dismissal, students with keys and cars were released first, students that walk to school were released immediately after.  Students being picked up by parents were directed to St. Jerome’s Catholic Church, where students were released to parents with staff supervision. The remaining OHS students were bused home and SLI Choir students were returned to Silver Lake Intermediate School.  Staff members were then sent home.
  • When students were evacuated from the building, Western Lakes Fire District tested the OAC and OHS for carbon monoxide (CO), and there was no CO detected.
  • The Waukesha County Hazmat Unit was then called to evaluate whether there were any dangerous or foreign substances in the air inside the OAC or OHS. Nothing was detected.
  • Oconomowoc Transport tested the buses that SLI students rode to OHS, and found no carbon monoxide.  The Waukesha County Hazmat Unit also tested the buses and found no CO.
  • Silver Lake Intermediate Choir students that were evacuated from the OAC were transported, by bus, back to SLI.
  • Upon returning to SLI, several students that did not show symptoms while at the OAC complained of feeling ill.  Emergency personnel responded to SLI to evaluate students there.
  • Thursday afternoon, Environmental Management Consulting, Inc. (EMC) placed air quality monitoring units in the OAC and OHS classrooms/hallways on the northern end of the building to monitor for carbon monoxide, Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC), carbon dioxide, and Temperature and Relative Humidity. EMC also placed a second monitoring unit to test for CO, Oxygen Level, Hydrogen Sulfide, and Air to Vapor Mixtures.

FRIDAY, MARCH 23, 2018:

  • Overnight, the EMC equipment inside OHS and the OAC, monitored the air for carbon monoxide (CO), Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC), carbon dioxide, and Temperature and Relative Humidity. A second EMC monitoring unit tested for CO, Oxygen Level, Hydrogen Sulfide, and Air to Vapor Mixtures.
  • As planned, additional test equipment was installed in the morning, to test for thousands of other potential chemicals.
  • Butters-Fetting, the District’s heating and ventilation contractor, was also on site, completing inspections of the building’s heating and ventilation systems and found nothing unusual or inoperable in our systems.
  • Western Lakes Fire Chief Bradley R. Bowen, confirmed the Medical Division transported a total of 64 patients by ambulance to Oconomowoc and Aurora Hospitals. The individuals transported included both students and faculty of the school. Throughout the day, the two Emergency Departments evaluated an additional 40 walk-in patients for related symptoms. Another 72 individuals were assessed on the scene for symptoms but did not require transport.  He also confirmed that a total of 5 of the individuals that were transported to the hospital were found to have blood levels of CO ranging from 2.3 ppm to 3.1 ppm, and underwent treatment.
  • That morning, Chief Bowen also confirmed that everyone who was either transported or came to the ER on their own Thursday had been released.  No one remained overnight.
  • At the afternoon briefing on Friday with EMC, Western Lakes Fire District, and Butters-Fetting, we were informed that equipment inside the OAC showed slightly elevated levels of carbon monoxide (CO).  Over a period of several hours, levels slowly rose to a maximum of 5 ppm, then declined to 0 ppm. While these levels were below the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standard of safety of 9 ppm, the District thought it was necessary to attempt to determine the source of these readings before allowing anyone into the building.  As a result, OHS and the OAC remained closed. All practices and events planned at OHS and the OAC for the weekend were canceled.
  • In an effort to isolate the cause of these readings, the hot water heater and summer boiler in the OAC Mechanical Room were also shut off at approximately 3:00 p.m.  The OAC air handling units were also scheduled as unoccupied, which means they were not moving any air in the space.       All of this was done in an attempt to isolate the source of the CO in that area.
  • In cooperation with Western Lakes Fire Department, we identified a safe way for students to retrieve instruments left in the band room during the evacuation, needed for the WSMA Solo & Ensemble competition on Saturday.
  • With the outside door to the band room propped open to provide fresh air, and with a Western Lakes representative present to monitor CO levels in the room, students were allowed inside to retrieve their instruments.  CO levels never went above 0 ppm in the room during this activity. Thank you to the Western Lakes Fire District for making this possible.

SATURDAY, MARCH 24, 2018:

  • The building continued to be monitored throughout the morning and no abnormal CO readings were found, either in the OAC or other places throughout the school.
  • CO levels were monitored and did not have any abnormal readings overnight or Saturday morning.  The hot water heater was turned on while the OAC air handling units were still scheduled as unoccupied, and the impact of this move was monitored for a change in the OAC CO levels.  After four hours of operation there were no abnormal CO levels in the OAC.
  • At 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, the Western Lakes Fire District inspected the OAC and adjacent spaces and also found no readings of carbon monoxide.
  • As a result, the District, with the support of the Western Lakes Fire District, believed it was safe to allow students and staff into OHS to reclaim their belongings.
  • Principal Curtis sent a letter to OHS parents and students informing them of the plan to have students safely retrieve belongings Saturday afternoon.
  • CO levels continued to be monitored with normal levels the entire time students and staff were in the building retrieving items. Pick up went smoothly.
  • Overnight the boiler in the OAC mechanical room was turned on, but the water heater was shut off in an attempt to once again isolate the source of the CO.  The OAC air handling units were still set to unoccupied during this time.
  • CO levels were monitored overnight.  With no abnormal readings, the decision was made to bring the building back up to full operation and continue to monitor throughout the day on Sunday, March 25.

SUNDAY, MARCH 26, 2018:

  • Overnight, the OAC boiler ran with the air handling units still set to unoccupied.  There were no abnormal CO readings. The overnight average CO reading was .4 ppm on the EMC equipment.
  • Environmental Management Consultants, Inc. (EMC) has worked with us directly since last Thursday, March 22, and was with us at our morning briefing meeting today.
  • As of 11:00 a.m. today, we have had no readings above 1 ppm since the 5 ppm reading reported at our 12:00 p.m. briefing on Friday, March 23.
  • Please remember that the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) safety standard is 9 ppm and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety standard is 50 ppm.
  • We are bringing the building back up to fully occupied settings and will continue to monitor CO levels throughout the day and overnight.
  • We are intending to open OHS for normal school operations tomorrow, Monday, March 26.
  • We will have EMC monitoring air quality in these areas and District staff on-site prior to the start of school on Monday, March 26, to ensure air quality remains safe for students and staff.
  • Going forward, we will continue to monitor CO levels in the OAC with equipment from EMC as well as additional monitors which have been placed throughout the building.

Below is a letter from Principal Curtis explaining the reopening of the high school Monday:

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Dear Students, Staff and Families,

Environment Management Consulting (EMC) has worked with us directly since last Thursday, March 22, and was with us at our morning briefing meeting today. As of 11:00 a.m. today, we have had no readings above 1 parts per million (ppm) since the 5 ppm reading reported at our 12:00 p.m. briefing on Friday, March 23. Please remember that the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) safety standard is 9 ppm and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety standard is 50 ppm. We are bringing the building back up to fully occupied settings and will continue to monitor CO levels throughout the day and overnight.

We have isolated and tested the boiler and hot water heater in the OAC, the only pieces of equipment that could possibly produce carbon monoxide. Each time this equipment was tested, no CO was detected.  As a result, we have not been able to identify a source for the raised levels of CO in the OAC. However, since the CO levels detected have always been below safety standards and have stayed below 1 ppm since the afternoon of Friday, March 23.

With that information, we will resume classes at Oconomowoc High School on Monday, March 26! This message is intended to address any remaining questions, summarize previous communications regarding changes to our operational calendar, and layout our plan as we reopen school on Monday.

 Adjustments to the OHS Operational Calendar

  • Our school calendar has extra instructional hours built in to account for any unexpected closings that may occur through the year. Even with the cancellation of school on Thursday and Friday, we are still above the minimum guidelines set by the Department of Public Instruction. Therefore, at this time, the last day of school will still be Thursday, June 7, 2018.
  • Students who did not reclaim items on Saturday afternoon, will have the opportunity to do so on Monday, March 26, from 7:05 a.m.-7:15 a.m. During lunch on Monday, teachers will be asked to bring any remaining items and the claim forms to the office.
  • Term 3 will now end on Wednesday, March 28. We will start term 4 after Spring Break on Monday, April 9.
  • Teachers are asked to finalize grades for term 3 by 12:00 p.m. on Friday, April 13. We anticipate publishing report cards later that afternoon.
  • Prom Ticket Sales and guest permission forms will be due by 12:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 28.
  • The 2018-2019 master schedule will be published by Tuesday, April 10. Our Student Services Team will communicate any changes to the scheduling timeline.

Reflection and Debriefing

After any emergency response it is important to take time and reflect on what went well and identify areas in our crisis response plan that need to be reviewed. Please note the several ways we plan to reflect on Thursday’s incident in order to continue to ensure the safety of the students and staff at Oconomowoc High School.

  • At 8:10 a.m. on Monday, March 26, I will make an all school announcement addressing some key points from last week’s evacuation.
  • The OHS Staff will be meeting to debrief on the entire incident on Monday, March 26, at 2:50 p.m. in the Little Theater.
  • Students are invited to debrief the entire event as part of my listening session during Pride on Tuesday, March 27. Please sign up for this session or email me directly if you have any ideas or questions about our emergency response procedures.
  • Our newly formed Student Safety Commission will have their first meeting during Pride on Wednesday, March 28. Our agenda will be focused on future trainings and how to educate our community on safe emergency responses. Students are still invited to join this team and can register by emailing me directly.
  • In observing the evacuation, it is clear that our school community needs to have an ALICE drill. We have scheduled this for Monday, April 30. Additional details will be shared with students, staff and families after Spring Break.
  • Meetings are occurring with the school district, first responders, air quality experts and medical officials to reflect on the response to Thursday’s incident. While many parents and students have offered their advice and input we continue to welcome you to share any ideas, questions or concerns with me.

Thank you and Appreciation

There are hundreds of people that deserve our thanks and appreciation for their help and support over the last few days. However, there are just a few groups of people that I would like to express my gratitude to towards in this message.

  • First, to our amazing staff at OHS. Everyone put titles aside and did what was best for kids. Together we coordinated the emergency response, arranged for the evacuation of over 1,700 individuals and worked to find a safe way for students to go home.
  • I want to extend a thank you to our students. I know the inconvenience of not having your personal items was stressful. However, it may have been healthy for some of you to go a couple of days without your cell phone.
  • We need to recognize the support of district officials in helping to coordinate our response to Thursday’s incident. This includes our administrative team and all the administrators, teachers and staff from across the district who supported our efforts. Your emails, texts and willingness to volunteer and help were greatly appreciated!
  • Finally, and most important, THANK YOU to our first responders. Students and staff are invited to the Field House during lunch on Tuesday, March 27, to sign thank you banners that will be delivered to the Oconomowoc Police Department, Western Lakes Fire Department, Aurora Medical Center and Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital

I am lucky to serve as the principal of such a supportive community. Our motto “Ocon Pride” extends beyond athletics and extracurricular activities. It is a motto that defines our community and in this case, defines how we set aside titles and differences to unite as one community in order to support each other during this situation. I am excited to continue in our journey together and I look forward to seeing everyone on Monday morning!

Thank you!

Jason Curtis

Principal

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