FIRE PREVENTION AND SAFETY STANDARDS IN SCHOOLS
The question of fire prevention and public safety in school buildings is an old one; much has been said and written on the subject. Naturally, in a paper of this length we cannot cover this broad subject fully, but we can get at the skeleton of the structure, and upon this skeleton we can build up our estimate of any particular school. During the past year I have examined probably a hundred and fifty school buildings, and granting certain exceptions, they leave much to be desired. The majority of these buildings are located m Illinois, and the most remarkable feature is the duplication of identical defects in school after school. Perhaps I can make myself clearer by taking you through one of these buildings with me. Starting our inspection in the attic, we usually find this to be from twenty to thirty feet in height, open finish of highly combustible construction, with no means of ventilation other than a few small windows near the floor. As often as not the attic can be reached only through a scuttle hole, and no permanent ladder is present; so, to begin with, a fire in the attic is inaccessible. As foul air exhausts are usually terminated in the attic instead of being carried out through the roof, as attics are frequently used for the storage of desks, decorations, lumber and other inflammable materials, and as the wiring is usually run along the tops of the floor joists and otherwise subject to mechanical injury, there is sufficient fire hazard involved to warrant attention. The best structural aid which can be employed in connection with such attic spaces are “fire stops.” These stops are constructed of metal lath and plaster or tile, and openings through same are protected by standard automatic fire doors, although often there are interior brick walls present which can be employed for this purpose. One such stop should be present in every attic of this type, and an additional one should be constructed for each additional 5,000 square feet of area. Two and one-half inch hose on one and one-half risers arc not uncommon, while two inches seems the usual size for risers. Four-inch risers should be employed except in rare instances, and one and one-half inch hose with five-eighths inch nozzles should constitute the protection. Descending to the second floor, wc frequently find an assembly hall. The doors to the hallway from this hall are usually double doors, with bolts on the inactive sides, and if there is a fire escape it is invariably accessible through ordinary windows, the sills of which are from two to four feet above the floor. The fact that the doors from the hall are “supposed” to be unbolted during the use of the hall hardly guarantees the safety of those assembled. and the extent of dependence which can be placed in a fire escape, as they are usually arranged with window sills at waist height and exposed by thin glass windows on the floors below, is problematical. As far as exit doors go, both from assembly rooms and from the building, approved panic bars are the guarantee of instantly available and full-width exit. The question of outside escape is somewhat involved, but briefly the most desirable means of egress is the horizontal exit where the children can be marched from one section of a building through a standard fire wall to another section, but very few school buildings which I have seen are adaptable by construction to this plan. Standard fire towers are also positive in the security which they afford, but their use in schools is infrequent. Stairways enclosed in tile, wire glass or other suitable material, with proper doors, are also much favored, but little used. As I find that . school boards are practically unanimous in their refusal to undertake structural alterations within a building, I have been recommending, where additional means of egress is necessary, the installation of an outside stairway. This stair should not be over four feet in width, and the first run of the stair should be away from the building. Every twelve feet of drop the direction of travel should be changed; this is to prevent any increase of speed on the part of the pupils descending the stair. Proper handrails should be provided and the balcony of the stair should be accessible through a door opening outward and equipped with a panic bar. The width of the treads and the height of the risers should be identical with those of the inside stairs. Naturally, this escape should be constructed in a substantial way and of incombustible material, and the stairs should have a slight pitch for draining purposes. If the door to this stair is from a class room, the door to this class room should be double acting in its operation, as it is in a direct line of travel between two distinct means of egress, and a fire escape sign should be posted over this door. School stairways are invariably bad; it seems to be the opinion of most architects that the wider they make the stairs the safer the stairs will be. As a matter of fact, no school stairway should exceed 44 inches in width unless it is of sufficient width to be divided into two equal posts. The inside handrail is usually missing and the outside rail is often of such width as to defeat the purpose for which it was installed. When a stair is much in excess of the proper width it permits the third child to get in between the two lines of the fire drill. School basements usually afford opportunity for considerable criticism. Here wc have the boiler room, coal room, fan room and often a manual training room and domestic science class. The boilers arc usually located under a combustible ceiling and immediately under a class room floor, and the clearance of the unprotected metal breeching is as a rule much less than the specified clearance of 24 inches for low pressure boilers and 36 inches for high pressure. The boiler room is frequently cut off by a brick wall, but with direct communications to the remaining basement area. Boiler rooms should be in a detached or adjoining section, with no communication to the building, but the only remedy for existing schools where the boilers are already in the building is to fireproof the boiler room ceiling and cut off all communications with standard automatic fire doors. Soft coal is stored in basements in quantities of from twenty-five to seventy-five tons, although soft coal in excess of fifteen tons is, under favorable conditions, subject to spontaneous ignition. I encountered a case of combustion last summer in a school. Manual training rooms are worth some close attention on the question of oil and rubbish storage, gasoline, etc., and domestic science rooms usually have flexible gas tubes on their gas places instead of rigid metallic connections, although the dangers of flexible tubes ought to be pretty familiar by now. The clearance of steam pipes, care of sweeping compounds, oil mops and accumulation of and manner of disposal of rubbish and sweepings should also be looked into. The organization of fire drills depends a good deal upon local conditions and need not be discusser; a too complicated form of drill should, however, be guarded against.