Progress in Safeguarding Chicago Schools
Much has been accomplished since December 1958, but the final goal has not yet been reached
The author graduated from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1952 with a B.S. degree in fire protection and safety engineering. He has served as an engineer with the Missouri Inspection Bureau and as a fire protection engineer with the Corps of Engineers at the Engineer Research & Development Laboratories and at U. S. Army headquarters in Japan and Korea. In 1957 he joined Goge-Babcock & Associates, Inc., then U. S. Eire Protection Engineering Service, in Kansas City and was transferred to the Chicago office in 1959. At the present time he is supervising the engineering of fire protection improvements for life safety in public and parochial schools in Chicago and Detroit. He is a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers and the Society of Eire Protection Engineers.
TWO YEARS have gone by since the Our Lady of the Angels fire in Chicago caused officials in communities all over the country to cast critical looks at fire protection in their own schools and forced a complete re-evaluation of the whole problem of school fire safety by concerned national, state, and local groups. Late in January 1959, less than two months after the fatal fire, the Chicago City Council enacted the first of several ordinances in the hope of attaining, through legislation, the goal of fire-safe schools.
The four requirements embodied in tire changes to the municipal code which the city council unanimously adopted as its first step to achieve fire-safe schools were:
- Automatic sprinklers in school buildings of less than fire-resistive construction if over one story in height.
- A fire alarm box within 100 feet of the main entrance of every school more than one story in height.
- The school fire alarm tied in with the city fire alarm box.
- Monthly fire drills in every school building, supervised and witnessed by fire department personnel.
The most expensive of these solutions to the fire problem became the sprinkler law. In its entirety, it required that every new or existing building used in whole or in part as a school, hospital, infirmary, nursing home, nursery, orphanage, sanitorium or home for the aged, must be fully sprinklered if it is more than one story in height and of Type III or IV (“ordinary” or wood-frame) construction. It is estimated that up to now in excess of $4 million has been spent in the city of Chicago to comply with this sprinkler law, and at least another $3 million will be required before all of the affected buildings are in compliance.
The sprinkler law raised controversy before it was even passed. The two groups representing the great bulk of the combustible schools—the public and the parochial school systems—objected that such a blanket requirement could only have a detrimental effect and cause unnecessary expenditures of funds.
City officials, however, stuck by their original concept of where sprinklers are required for life safety, although the deadline for complying was extended from January 1, 1960, to December 31, 1960. What this means is that by the end of this year, the city council expects nearly 500 school buildings in Chicago to be fully sprinklered—or be discontinued for school use. It is obvious now that there is no possibility that the deadline will be met.
All photos by James C. McCall, Jr.
Records which are being maintained by the fire prevention bureau of the Chicago Fire Department best indicate the scope of the job of sprinklering the schools and what has been accomplished. Of the approximately 1,200 school buildings within the city, more than a third require sprinklers. Public and the Catholic parochial schools together account for 80 per cent of the total; the balance are other parochial and private schools, including various buildings of the University of Chicago, Illinois Institute of Technology, and North Park College.
According to estimates now being made, approximately 120 of the sprinkler systems required in public and Catholic parochial schools will be complete and in operation by the end of the year. Most of the remaining ones will be under contract and in various stages of completion. Insofar as the other parochial schools and the private schools are concerned, they will have barely started on the program.
“We’re satisfied with the progress so far,” Captain Sullivan of the fire prevention bureau indicated a couple of months ago. “When you consider the complexity of the average system and that the installation usually takes months, the accomplishments have been really outstanding and are evidence to us of the sincere effort which has been made by most of the groups concerned to comply with the law.
Even though the city council failed to reconsider the all-encompassing aspects of the sprinkler law, some interpretations had to be made to avoid forcing the schools to put sprinklers where they were obviously not intended. For instance, many parochial schools are located in a wing attached to the church building, and by strict interpretation of the law, the church, also would have to be sprinklered. Again, over the years, additions of superior construction have been placed on hundreds of schools so that they connect with the old, “pre-building ordinance” sections of combustible construction. Inasmuch as the various sections are not separated by proved fire walls, the law strictly interpreted would require all fire-resistive sections to be sprinklered, as well as the portion to which the ordinance was intended to apply.
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The vastness of the project and the fact that it represented something completely new for Chicago introduced numerous problems, many of which were solved by the two engineering firms most closely connected with the installations. Gage-Babcock &: Associates, Inc., representing the Board of Education, and Schirmer Engineering Corporation, consultants to the Catholic school system, assisted from the very beginning to achieve the desired goals through the most economical means possible.
Innovations which the two firms recommended and which were accepted by the city included the use of a 250-gpm booster pump for small schools (instead of the 500-gpm pump previously the smallest permitted), the elimination of detector check valves, and variations from the code as it pertains to fire pump electrical services. Just these three items have resulted in claimed savings estimated to be in excess of $300,000.
Considerable progress has been made in what is considered to be the most important single requirement for preventing the recurrence of a disastrous school fire: Tying the school fire alarm system in with the nearest city box. By this means, the fire department immediately responds whenever the sprinkler system operates, an automatic heat or smoke detector is activated, or a manual station in the building is pulled.
Although no deadline was established, the fire alarm and police telegraph division expect to have completed the $3-million task of placing a fire alarm box within 100 feet of the main entrance of every school by the end of the year. So far, in approximately 50 schools the necessary equipment has been installed and the wiring out to the box has been completed. In the parochial schools, electricians are now completing the connections as fast as the city provides the master boxes. The job is taking longer at the public schools, where competitive bidding and individual contracts result in some unavoidable delay. However, before the end of the year, the Board of Education expects to have contracts awarded for all of the schools where connections are required, approximately one-tenth of which will be in operation by then.
This fire alarm work has resulted in several “firsts” for Chicago. Master boxes, which can be tripped either manually by pulling the handle on the box or electrically from a remote location, were used for the first time. The boxes being installed are the local-energy type, where the current for the trip coil circuit is provided from the building being protected.
Another first is the installation of boxes at 50 South Side schools by Illinois Bell Telephone Company on a trial basis. The telephone company is furnishing and maintaining the necessary circuits, terminating at a new panel at the Englewood fire alarm office. Voice communication through regular telephone handsets is an additional feature new to Chicago. The tripping of these boxes remotely from the school building will be accomplished in the same manner as in the Gamewell boxes.
Another new item is the auxiliary panel especially designed for use in Chicago to connect local alarm systems with the fire alarm office. Incorporating several features considered necessary by the electrical inspection bureau, the panel is being provided with a special key-operated switch for disconnecting the trip coil circuit when it is desired to hold a fire drill in the building. The panel is also equipped with a trouble bell and pilot lights to indicate abnormal conditions.
To most people familiar with the complexity of the modern fire alarm system and the extensively used dry-pipe sprinkler system, the problem of maintenance is considered one of the potential factors for eventual breakdown of the protection afforded by the systems. The law-has no provision for periodic inspections and tests; yet unless they are made, there is, of course, no guarantee that the systems will function properly when needed.
Chicago has made great strides in the last two years towards achieving the goal of safe evacuation of all children from any school building which might be involved in a fire. Many schools have taken action to supplement the program adopted by the city council, further decreasing the possibility of a fatal fire.
In the majority of the schools with serious life-safety problems, sufficient improvements have been made to make it unlikely that there will be a repetition of the 1958 tragedy, but this is not true in every case. In some buildings where improvements are badly needed, little has been done, and it may require court action in some instances to force compliance with the fire safety laws. It is hoped that this will happen before more lives have been lost.