Preventing Tragedies in Public Institutions

Preventing Tragedies in Public Institutions

STATISTICS show that there are fires in five schools, five churches and one hospital every day, which, when coupled with those in hotels, theatres and other classes of buildings frequented by the public, result in losses of startling proportions.

Loss of life is the greatest toll exacted for carelessness and it is in public buildings that many of our great disasters occur. Such calamities usually command nation-wide attention for a day, but for the most part public institution fires are quickly forgotten. The seriousness of neglecting buildings of this character is furthere emphasized, however, by the fact that it is estimated that more than 10 per cent of the nation’s annual property fire waste is the result of fires in public institutions.

It is a fair estimate that during an average of four hours each day for 200 days in the year there are 26,000,000 children housed in the public schools of the United States. No fundamental educational problem is greater than the safety of these children. For the majority of these children attendance at school is compulsory by law. The significance of this situation was forcibly expressed by the Industrial Commission of one state in the following language:

“There are only two classes of buildings where attendance is involuntary—schools and jails. If the house or flat in which you live is a fire-trap, you are at liberty to move out. If you believe that a certain hotel or theatre is unsafe, you need not patronize it. But if your school is in daily danger of becoming a fiery furnace—the law compels your children to attend just the same.”

It is also estimated that there are more than 1,500,000 sick, aged, blind, crippled, insane, orphaned and otherwise unfortunate or defective persons in more than 10,000 institutions of the United States. They remain in these buildings every day of the year and consequently their personal safety is dependent to a considerable degree upon the steps taken to make the structures safe for occupancy.


There are a number of common hazards which may cause fire or contribute toward its spread. The chief causes of fire in public buildings, practically all of which are preventable or partially preventable, follow: Defective installation of heating and ventilating apparatus, including piping; defective chimneys and stove pipes passing through combustible partitions, walls and roofs.

Poor housekeeping, rubbish, ashes, etc. Smoking and improper use of matches. Lack of protection against outside exposure.

Improper installation and use of gas appliances.

Hot ashes and coals and open fires. Defective electrical installations.

Lack of lightning protection.

Hazards contributing toward the spread of fire are :

Unprotected floor openings.

Lack of fire stopping.

Large undivided areas.

Excessive heights.

Combustible roof coverings.

Skylights and ventilators which permit entrance of sparks.

Cracked and bulged walls or walls of inferior construction.

Ceilings, walls and partitions sheaved with flimsy materials.

Poor foundation or lack of foundation.

Because of the large number of people often occupying public buildings, additional hazards contributing to panic in the event of fire may be found in these structures. Among these are:

Insufficient number of exit doors.

Lack of horizontal exits to protected adjoining spaces. Exits adjacent to open shafts and otherwise improperly arranged.

Exit doors not equipped with panic bars or opening inward.

Locked and obstructed exit doors.

Eire escapes which are not erected according to acceptable standards. Steep, narrow and dark stairways including those with many turns and obstructed landings.

Narrow and obstructed halls.

Absence of guard rails on stairways. Loose, worn-out and improperly spaced stairway treads, or flooring of slippery material.

Improperly designated exit doors. Improperly illuminated passageways. Improperly installed air conditioning systems.

Corrective Safely Measures

Too often public building disasters are caused by hazards arising from carelessness and indifference. Pending the time when funds are made available for fundamental structural and protective improvements, which are essential in many institutions before reasonably safe occupancy is assured, certain corrective safety measures are advocated. One of the fundamental principles of fire prevention is cleanliness, yet in many instances serious fires have started or spread because of accumulations of rubbish, scrap paper, and other combustible material in basements, attics and other out of the way places. A school fire in which 21 lives were lost is an example of the serious consequences which may arise from such conditions.

Fires seldom start in clean places and it is obvious that strict orders should be issued to janitors and cleaners of public buildings that all combustible waste material be collected and removed daily. If scrap paper is baled, it is advisable that the bales be stored outside the main building. Periodic inspections by qualified men will do much to eliminate easily recognized hazards.

If fires do start they may be localized by providing the following:

Standard inclosed stairways and elevator shafts to cut off each floor. Adequate fire stopping at all stud partitions and furring at all floor and ceiling lines.

Automatic sprinkler systems generally throughout public institutions constructed of nonfire resistive materials and in all danger points in buildings of fire resistive construction, such as kitchens, laundries, trunk rooms, Xray film storage rooms, basements and attics of hospitals and in basements around heating apparatus in schools and churches.

There is today a growing appreciation of the importance of making public institutions safe from fire. But a great distance remains to be traveled before all such establishments will have attained that degree of safety which is necessary to safeguard properly the lives of inmates therein.

In this article, which was originally prepared by the Western Actuarial Bureau and which has recently been revised by the Insurance Department of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, are set forth suggestions for improving the fire protection of public institutions and safeguarding the inmates therein.

Automatic alarm systems.

Fire walls with standard fire doors to cut off large horizontal floor areas.

F’ire curtains in proscenium walls of theatre and auditorium stages. Ventilators of incombustible construction and protected so sparks and brands cannot fall into the building. Fire resistive bins, pits, vaults and rooms for storage of volatile, inflammable and otherwise dangerous materials.

Protective Facilities

It is of primary importance that an ample water supply be provided in the vicinity of public buildings. Unless a large quantity of water is available the Fire Department maybe unable to control a fire which has gained some headway. The Fire Prevention Committee of a Chamber of Commerce in a middle western citymade a test to determine the adequacy of the public water supply near a large school and found that very little water could be obtained. The CityCouncil immediately ordered the installation of a large main leading directly to the school.

Many fires in public buildings can be controlled in their incipient stage before the arrival of the Fire Department if private protective equipment has been installed.

Automatic Sprinklers: The installation of automatic sprinklers is an effective safeguard for public institutions. Their advantage lies in the fact that heat from a fire causes a spray of water to be released directly over the blaze, thus quenching the fire before it develops into serious proportions. An automatic sprinkler system may be installed so that an alarm of fire is transmitted to fire department headquarters simultaneously with the operation of the sprinklers. Based upon past experience, the possibility of loss of life is remote in buildings equipped with sprinklers.

It is particularly feasible to provide sprinklers throughout all buildings or rooms used for industrial work, throughout all attics, lofts, basements and stairways of combustible construction, in all kitchens, store closets, broom closets and the tops of chutes or dumb waiters. They are advisable in all day rooms, halls and corridors of hospitals other than those for persons suffering from mental diseases. In the latter institutions there is a possibility that sprinkler heads might be broken or garments might be attached to exposed pipes by persons with homicidal intent.

Standpipes and Hose: Inside hose protection is advantageous in fire extinguishment in that it affords a direct contact against the blaze. For a standpipe system to function most efficiently, it is important that the hose be kept connected to the standpipe, the normal water pressure be sufficient to reach all parts of the building. the hose examined regularly and defective lengths and nozzles replaced, and the hose hung properly on brackets or reels. When a fire has gained such headway that the use of hose is necessary, first consideration should be given to the removal of occupants. Fighting the fire is then of secondary consideration.

First Aid Appliances: Various types of hand extinguishers are effective in putting out fires in an incipient stage. Soda and acid extinguishers or water pump cans are of value in

fighting ordinary blazes. For electrical and small gasoline or oil fires, carbon tetrachloride or carbon dioxide extinguishers are suggested. Extinguishers of the foam type are well adapted for oil fires.

Measures to prevent freezing should be employed when soda-acid or foam extinguishers or water pump cans are exposed to low temperatures. Extinguishers should be placed in conspicuous locations and kept free from all obstructions. In no case should they be hung more than five feet from the floor. In institutions where women and children are likely to use them, it is better that they be hung three feet from the floor and extinguishers of 1 1/2 gallons capacity be installed because larger ones may be too heavy for such persons to handle.

Employees and attendants should be thoroughly drilled in the use of these appliances.

Safety of Occupants

The saving of human life is of paramount importance in structures of this character. The following paragraphs are presented in the thought that local fire prevention committees may wish to make special studies of the methods adopted in their public buildings to prevent loss of life in event of fire.

Fire Drills: Fire drills are extremely important in all public institutions. but in some instances it is impracticable to organize them. It is impossible to formulate rules for conducting fire drills which may be applied to every building because they are dependent upon the size and construction of the building, the number and location of exits and the number and type of occupants. I he assistance of the local Fire Chief, State Fire Marshal or some other expert whose services are available would be of value in organizing properly a fire drill system for each public institution of the community. Further references will be made to fire drills in this article.

Rescuing Patients From a Burning Hospital In this fire two hundred patients were carried safely down ladders, elevators and fire escapes by the firemen within twenty minutes after the blaze broke out in the upper floor of the hospital.Preparatory School for Boys Destroyed The view shows the fire at its height, taken from the rear of the building. The school was entirely destroyed.

Fire Alarms: Every public institution, except perhaps the small onestory structure, should IK* provided with a fire alarm system. If possible.

arrangement should be made so that the pulling of a fire alarm box installed in the building will send an immediate alarm to the Fire Department. In larger institutions it is advisable to distribute alarm boxes throughout the property. For a fire drill, the city alarm connection can be cut out. The size and occupancy of the building will determine its fire alarm requirements. Reference to available literature on the subject and the use of advice and experience of experts is suggested. Complete instructions should be issued concerning procedure when fire is discovered, so that no time will be lost in sending in an alarm to the Fire Department Headquarters.

Egress Facilities: Proper means of egress vary with the occupancy and construction of the building. For example, ample exits for a building equipped with automatic sprinklers may be entirely inadequate in another of similar occupancy without fire protective equipment. Schools, hospitals, hotels, theatres and churches all present different egress problems, the two most closely allied being theatres and churches. Doorways, stairways, windows and hallways deserve particular attention. At least two independent means of egress should be accessible from every portion of the building. Standard exit signs, illuminated at night, should be placed over all stairways and doors leading directly to the outside. Current for electric exit lights should be independent of the general lighting and jtower circuits.

Fire escapes sometime contribute to peril rather than offer a means of egress. Smoke-proof towers are one of the safest forms of exits. They are built-in stairways with fire resistive walls and doors which cut them off from the rest of the building and can be used for daily service as well as emergency exits. They should not be located at points where a fire in a neighboring building would interfere with egress. The exit doors should be kept free of snow, ice or other obstruction.

It is generally true that if proper protective features and egress facilities are provided inside a building there will be no need for outside fire escapes. If the latter are to be erected, competent fire protection engineers should be consulted. There should be direct access to such escapes in order that no delays may be experienced in reaching them. They should lead to the ground and should be located opposite blank walls or wired glass windows in metal frames. Stairs should be wide and have an easy pitch and adequate hand rails should be provided. Under these conditions they form a fairly safe means of exit.

Another type of exit now being used in some school and hospital buildings is the inclined tubular fire escape in which the occupants slide to the ground. It permits direct and rapid exit from the interior of the building. Care should be taken that the tube remains unobstructed at all times. Where there are exit doors on slides or chutes it is imperative that they be kept in perfect working order.

Horizontal exits through fire resistive partitions to protected rooms or spaces on the same level in adjoining or connected structures are a valuable type of emergency exit. They form areas of safety and permit transfer of occupants from sections involved without taking them outside, a dangerous practice in the case of hospitals, especially during winter months.

Fire Brigades: Fire brigades and safety corps may be formed among the students in schools and employees in other public institutions. If thoroughly drilled in the principles of fire prevention, fire fighting and rescue work, these groups can be of much assistance in time of fire. It may be advisable to have separate divisions for fire fighting and the removal of occupants. In this connection it may be stated that every executive and employee of public institutions should know common fire hazards and their correctives, the use and operation of fire extinguishers and the proper method of turning in a fire alarm. Especially to nurses and teachers are these subjects important and their study may well be made a regular part of their training course.

Blankets: In kitchens, laboratories, laundries and other places in public buildings where clothing on a person may possibly be ignited, blankets of woolen material should be provided for use in smothering the flames. If everyone who frequents these rooms is acquainted with the location of the blankets, • the possibility of death or serious injury in this manner would be minimized.

Special Features

Schools: The organization of fire drills should receive careful study and thought. It is advisable that a system be worked out for each building by one who is an authority on the subject. Fire brigades or fire marshals or monitors may be appointed from among the older pupils. It is their duty to supervise the removal of crippled children and those of the lower grades. Care must be taken to march the children away from the building in order to avoid injury to themselves and the hampering of firemen in rescue work and in fighting the fire. If the teachers possess an emergency roll-book, they will be able to make an immediate check of the pupils. Many lives have been saved by this practice. Danger signals or a sign reading “Stop—Fire Drill should be carried by monitors to the streets during each fire drill.

Some teachers may refuse to take fire drills seriously and not leave the building. If this difficulty is not corrected, it may properly be just cause for dismissal. Teachers cannot judge whether an alarm means a drill or a fire. Fire drills should be conducted without previous announcement either to the teachers or pupils, the only exception being the first drill of the school year.

Unsafe Classrooms

Basement classrooms, unless provided with direct outside exits, are dangerous and their continued use is inadvisable. Likewise it is unsafe to have class rooms above the second floor of school buildings of nonfire resistive construction and not equipped with automatic sprinklers and other protective appliances.

It is recommended that exit doors and class room doors open outwardly and that during school hours they be kept unlocked and free from obstructions. Horizontal exits can be applied to some schools as outlined in a following paragraph captioned “Hospitals and Asylums.” If desks in classrooms and auditorium seats are firmly secured to the floor, the possibility of congestion and panic will be decreased. Supervision of all laboratory and manual training work by experienced instructors is advisable in order to prevent injury and minimize danger of fire.

Hospitals and Asylums: Horizontal egress is a most practical arrangement for hospitals. Patients may be removed horizontally through fire walls and fire resistive corridors or across open bridges to areas or separate structures cut off from the burning building. Doors should open outwardly and be of sufficient width to permit beds to be removed through them easily. Bed ridden, old and decrepit patients should be quartered in the first story.

Organization of fire drills and safety corps is important in all hospitals and asylums and in this the experience of experts should be applied. Fire fighting brigades may be formed from assistants, firemen, engineers, porters, janitors, mechanics, kitchen and yard men. They should be properly captained and drilled in assisting in the removal of patients and in the elements of fire fighting.

In institutions where it is necessary to keep inmates locked in rooms with liarred windows, it is suggested that the number of looks be reduced to a minimum and master keys lie widelydistributed with their location made known to a number of employees. In this connection it should be made certain that the Fire Department is equipped with liar cutting apparatus. This emphasizes the importance of nurses and attendants being constantly” at their posts of duty and the need of a supervisory signalling system for this purpose.

During recent years X-ray photograph has become an important phase of hospital work. The so-called safety films, having cellulose acetate as a base, should by all means be used : in some states they are required by law. If nitro-cellulose films, which are highly” flammable, are used, special storage and handling practices must be observed.

Films in Metal Containers

A safe practice is to keep unexposed films in metal boxes or cans on

shelves raised from the floor or in double walled cabinets vented to the outside air. It is suggested that exposed films be stored in vented cabinets or vented storage rooms of fire resistive construction. Smoking should be prohibited in such locations and electric lights in storage rooms should be protected with wire guards and explosion-proof globes. The use of portable lights on extension cords would be hazardous in the presence of flammable films.

Extensive use of volatile and flammable liquids, open flames, cotton and cotton gauze, and flannellette is common in hospitals and care should lie used in handling and storing them. Only explosion-proof globes should lie used in operating rooms and at other jioints where there is danger of contact with explosive fumes.

Churches: Many church fires occur from sudden heating in an attempt to warm the building sufficiently for Sunday services following a cold week. Precautions should be taken to prevent flowing robes and decorations from coming in contact with open flames. Candles should be securely placed in holders which will not fall, and care should be taken in the use of incense burners. Lack of proper exits is common, and egress is often hampered by the installation of pews which partially cut off the exit facilities. The standards usually

prescribed by law for theatres, such as requirements for width of exits in proportion to seating capacity, may well apply to churches and their auxiliary buildings with very little alteration.

Auburn Prison, When Convicts Set the Buildings on Fire General view of the prison, with firemen on the walls and in the quadrangle, fighting the flames. Convicts can be seen huddled in small groups in the enclosure.

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