The Apple Valley Community Center hasn’t had an operable fire alarm system for the past 2½ months, forcing the center’s staff to do hourly “fire watch” checks of every room in the building while the city considers how to replace it.

Even though dozens of people can be in the building on Hayes Road on any given day for recreational leagues and programs or to use the gym or meeting rooms, Fire Chief Nealon Thompson isn’t worried.

“There is no more risk to the occupants of the Community Center than there was with the fire alarm being operational,” said Thompson, who has been chief of the mostly volunteer department for eight years. “I would go in there and play basketball all night, if time allowed me to.”

The staff has been trained or had a refresher course on how to use a fire extinguisher, how to evacuate the building and how to make sure 911 dispatchers know their exact location. But when the Community Center closes for the day, nobody is on fire-watch duty.

“They don’t have to do a fire watch after hours because there is no threat to life,” Thompson said.

The problem with the old alarm system was discovered when it sent two separate false alarms to the fire station, Thompson said. It’s not repairable, and it wasn’t up to current codes, anyway.

Thompson and Barry Bernstein, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, presented a plan with two options at an informal City Council meeting on Thursday. The first — and lower-cost — option would be to replace the fire alarm system with a code-compliant model. That would cost around $50,000, Thompson speculated.

The second option — preferred by Thompson — would be to install a fire sprinkler system at a cost of about $150,000. Fire sprinklers would eliminate the need for smoke detectors and manual fire alarm pulls throughout the building and would require only about four monitoring points rather than 80 without the sprinkler system.

Thompson pointed out that sprinkler systems don’t actually work like they do in the movies. Only one sprinkler, closest to a detected heat source, goes off. If that fails to extinguish a fire, another goes off, rather than dousing everyone in the building with water.

Why not close the building?

That would affect thousands of people, Thompson said. Community centers in nearby cities are already full and can’t host Apple Valley’s programs in addition to their own, he said.

Minnesota fire code defines exactly what a fire watch is, and says it’s suitable as a temporary solution. Thompson pointed out, too, that most fires are spotted while a building is occupied.

Council members told city staff to move quickly in pricing new systems and contractors. Thompson said the council likely will get that information soon into the new year and authorize the money from a contingency fund.