Fire Prevention & Protection, Firefighting

Preincident Intelligence of Educational Facilities

By Eric G. Bachman

When communities grow and change, so do the needs of their citizens. Growth and change can increase service demands as well as stress and overload systems to the point where modifications, expansion, or new quarters are necessary. Education is a system that is ever growing and changing. From preschool, to secondary education, to specialized trade schools, these institutions are growing, and their facilities are constantly changing to meet their students’ educational needs. The fire service must maintain currency on them.

In NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, educational facilities are regarded as encompassing kindergarten through the 12th grade. For the purposes of this article, however, it also includes other places of learning including vocational centers and other secondary educational facilities.

 

ALL-HAZARD INTELLIGENCE    

When enhancing the fire departments intelligence on educational facilities (EFs), potential responses should encompass all hazards, not just fire incidents. From fires to hazardous materials incidents to school violence and weather effects, fire departments play a vital role in all of these incidents.

EFs present common and unique challenges that you must identify with countermeasures contemplated, practiced, and refined. An unprepared fire department will certainly be overwhelmed, and their lack of preincident intelligence will be reflected in their operations and the incident outcome. Below are common aspects applicable to many facility types and those unique to educational facilities. Local conditions may not be reflected in this article, but the intent is to heighten awareness and provide tips for improving local EF intelligence.

 

ACCESSIBILITY

One primary factor is facility access. Structural positioning is necessary to analyzing effective apparatus placement and equipment deployment by firefighters. Arrangement varies; some are multistory, box-like configurations, while others are expansive with numerous appendages. Some may be built on a relatively flat parcel, and others feature elevation variances (photo 1). EF’s can be located on special properties, be set back from the roadway (photo 2), and present unique restrictive challenges such as the wrought iron fence surrounding the facility, as seen in photo 2.

(1) An elementary school with a slight elevation variance to the left. (Photos by author.)

(2) An older elementary school built on an elevated triangle tract.

 

EF access circumstances will affect many incident operations including apparatus positioning, hoseline advancement, and ladder placement. It is crucial to understand access to an EF before an incident.

 

INGRESS/EGRESS PROFILE

A second important factor is the profile for ingress and egress. Where and how the exits are located as well as stairwell pathways is important in understanding occupant movement and maneuverability by response personnel. Stairwell profiles are facility-dependent, and generalizing ingress and egress without physically surveying EF layouts is not appropriate. A center-core stairwell (photo 3) connecting to other levels may be present. Or, there may be a series of stairwells throughout. Each instance is necessary to recognize to maintain and counter orientation issues.

(3) The main stairwell to the second floor of this new elementary school is doublewide and at the center of the lobby area.

 

ROOM IDENTIFIERS

Understanding specific room locations and the appropriate means to access them will avoid confusion of appropriate points of entry. An important preincident intelligence tool is a cross-reference sheet that correlates room numbers to their purpose or activity. It may be beneficial to expand this tool to include and correlate the name of the teacher assigned to each room. With the excitement of an emergency, there may be many ways in which the location can be reported. For one smoke investigation call, crews were advised that the “caller reported a smoke condition in the math room in the 4th grade wing.” At another incident, the report was in “Mr. James’s English classroom.” Unfamiliarity with the layout or an inability to cross-reference those descriptors could cause confusion and hamper effective resource deployment.

Other program and service references, abbreviations, and acronyms for rooms that teach ESL (English as a Second Language) may be meaningless to response personnel. In addition to the cross-reference medium suggested above, it may be prudent to also have a legend to decipher these programs.

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LIFE HAZARD

The most important aspect at any incident—and especially at an EF—is life safety. Many questions should come to mind such as “How many students (and staff) are there?” “What are the self-preservation levels?” and “What is the accountability procedure, and how quickly can it be communicated to fire officials?” These are important considerations prior to an incident. Additionally, ask yourself, are there students with special needs or at-risk youths that require special accommodations or handling? This may require additional staff or special procedures.

What and where are the designated evacuation routes and staging? You do not want dozens of students standing in the main access driveway or parking lot when emergency equipment is arriving. These considerations are not only for elementary, middle, and high school facilities, but also for secondary education facilities and specialized trade schools.

Time of day used to be a perceptive consideration for life hazard potential. Today, however, many extra-curricular activities, meetings, and programs may be hosted before and well after typical teaching hours. The same questions related to occupants listed above for regular school hours also apply for non-regular hours.

 

MULTIPURPOSE AREAS

To reduce costs, newer EFs will declare certain areas as multipurposed. One day, a large room can be used to accommodate an assembly. The next day, folding walls (photo 4) and partitions may be positioned to compartmentalize space for smaller group activities. Be aware of their location, and consider their potential dispositions.

(4) A door to a classroom assigned two room numbers equipped with a folding wall so that one or two classrooms may be used.

 

EXPANSION

As enrollments grow, so does the demand for space. If the EF or school district is unable to construct a new facility or build a permanent space, an alternative may be the addition of portable or modular classrooms (photo 5).

(5) Four modular buildings placed at this middle school because of increased student census.

 

When present, it is essential to identify designated room numbers and their purpose. Also, updating preincident mediums is a must. Many response issues are associated with these additions including access, construction, utility service controls, and fire detection and suppression systems. It is vital to understand how these modular classrooms are integrated into the EF. Some modular classrooms may have a physical conveyance to the main school. Others may be standalone, and students using these rooms must brave the elements during the course of a day.

 

PROTECTION AND UTILITIES

Like any other facility, you must understand detection and suppression systems. Learn how the detection system delineates activations. How are the detection devices addressed? Is it device-specific, or generalized by zones? If it is by zones, what areas are associated with each zone to narrow investigation activities? And as in the case of the modular classrooms, determine if they are tied into the system.

Recently, a new school that I toured installed an automatic smoke evacuation system in the main center core stairwell. This system automatically shuts down other air flow mediums to reduce smoke spread throughout the facility. Fire officials must understand this process and its impact at an incident.

You must also review and understand suppression systems. Survey facilities with sprinkler systems that undergo additions to determine how this new section is protected and integrated. Consider if the system is supported by a separate fire department connection as well as the type of system. As part of a major school renovation project, a wet pipe sprinkler system was installed to protect the first and second floors. The main control valve for this system was in the basement. A dry pipe system was also installed to protect the attic. The main control valve assembly for the dry system, however, was located in a storage room on the second floor.

Identify utility shutoffs to support incident operations. Ascertain utility room locations, and identify the areas for which they control. Multiple utility control rooms may exist, especially in building expansions. Know what rooms house controls/shutoffs for which areas. Identify pipe chases (photo 5) for these systems. These void spaces may influence incident circumstances including smoke movement. Where are they located, and how accessible are they?

Also identify other infrastructure such as photovoltaic systems and backup generators.

 

OTHER HAZARDS

Many other hazards may exist such as kitchen facilities. Food services in schools have drastically changed in recent years. To meet certain nutritional needs, kitchen facilities have expanded including commercial grade systems and walk-in coolers.

Another important task is to identify chemistry lab materials. These labs may contain a wide variety of chemicals that could pose exposure consequences. Mercury, for example, is seemingly benign because of its playful characteristics. However, it is not something to take lightly. Exposure to mercury as well as other materials in a chemistry lab may have both acute and chronic affects.

Kilns may also be part of the arts curriculum. Consider their location and how they are exhausted.  Locally, incidents related to kilns have occurred with varied damage results. Also, some schools may have swimming pools. Their location and the chemicals used to maintain water quality are necessary to evaluate preincident. Improper use of pool chemicals can have substantial affects to those exposed.

 

PREINCIDENT PLANNING COORDINATION

Consider the factors listed above when preparing for emergencies at EFs. In addition to preparing fire department staff for EF incidents, preincident coordination with school representatives is also critical. EFs have their own chain of command, policies, and procedures. It is essential to understand their standards and mandates and to coordinate all-hazard response activities before an incident.

Do not exclude other response disciplines in preemergency response coordination activities such as law enforcement. No matter the incident, all will be involved, and all must work together.

Intelligence gathered by the fire department may be useful to support other emergency incidents. At most nonfire EF incidents, and as witnessed on television footage at past school incidents—from Columbine to Sandy Hook—the fire department was engaged. Preparing, training, and practicing in tandem before an emergency will benefit the management and operations at a real incident.

EFs present the fire service many hazards and concerns which must be identified, studied, practiced, and coordinated. These facilities are changing, and fire officials must be current with all their facets. Managing an incident requires a coordinated effort and shared use of preincident intelligence. Coordination with school officials and other response organizations prior reduces duplication of efforts, improves preincident coordination and, most importantly, enhances the life safety of all involved.

 

ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.