School Fire Safety
Sprinkler and Detection Systems Are Basic for
Deputy Fire Marshal
WHAT HAPPENS in a school when the fire alarm sounds? Is it, to the children, merely a signal for a few free minutes from work, or do they realize the serious purpose of a fire drill?
The children should be told. The seriousness of a fire drill should be explained to them. They should be impressed that the purpose of a fire drill is to make the evacuation of a school upon signal such an automatic thing that they will do it instinctively and quickly even though blindfolded, in the dark, or through dense smoke.
A chief recently told of this experience! He arrived at a certain school, intent on holding a fire drill. The school principal immediately took off saying, “I’ll be right back, chief.” In a few moments, he returned and following, a perfect fire drill was held. All the members of the faculty and all the students seemed to know just what to do, and the performance was beautiful to behold.
The chief then left, after thanking the principal, and rode off in his car. He circled the block, returned to the school, and actuated the fire alarm without a word to anyone; the result was utter chaos and confusion.
Therefore, to be effective, fire drills must be held without prior notice to other than the principal. The drills must come at any time and under any circumstances whether it be during assembly, a rainstorm, or cold weather. And they should be followed upon return to the classroom by a brief talk by each teacher explaining the reason for a fire drill.
It is a startling fact that a great many teachers—and even many principals—do not fully comprehend the serious necessity of a fire drill. It is for this reason that competent fire department personnel should supervise every fire drill, and stress in their talks the necessity for grim seriousness in the performance of these extremely important parts of a child’s education.
At a drill everyone must leave the building. No exceptions! This means actors in costume in a tableau, athletes in gym suits in the gymnasium, swimmers in the pool, PTA groups and other visitors, teachers, students engaged in special work, and the principal.
At an actual fire, a teacher, member of the staff, or student, must hurry to the nearest box and sound the alarm which will empty the building of precious human lives.
But suppose for some unforeseen and unforeseeable reason this person does any other thing than sound the alarm. We then have the makings of a possible school tragedy. The various alternatives open to the discoverer of the fire are:
First, to panic and flee the building with no attempt to warn others. Another would be a brave but foolish attempt to extinguish the fire without bothering to notify anyone. The third, to investigate further to avoid appearing foolish by pulling a false alarm.
Heat and smoke detectors
How can we eliminate the disastrous results of the weaknesses encompassing the human element? First and foremost, by the well-engineered installation of dependable heat and smoke detectors in the circuit of the school’s present fire-alarm system. These are primary and basic. The installation of an adequate fire detector system can mean the difference between a disastrous school fire or an ordinary building fire.
The second most important item in school fire safety is to extinguish the fire or hold it in check until the pupils are evacuated.
With an old school, the most obvious solution to the problem is the construction of a new school. However, since new schools cost money and in most communities money is not readily forthcoming, we must look for alternate methods of solving the problem.
Sprinklers do the job
It has been shown by the records of the American Insurance Association that automatic sprinkler systems are 97 percent effective in holding fires in check. This 3 percent failure of automatic sprinkler systems may be laid directly to the human element of which faulty maintenance ranks high among other things. It is obvious that a properly installed and carefully maintained automatic sprinkler system will prevent fire from destroying your schools.
Proper automatic sprinkler installation carries with it four tremendous advantages:
First and foremost, the properly installed automatic sprinkler system is also a good, dependable alarm system. When a sprinkler head fuses (which most do at 160°F), water under pressure begins to flow in the system. Flow of water operates a pressure switch which either opens or closes an electrical circuit, sounding interior or exterior alarms.
Water flow indicators with plastic vanes inside the risers and outside water motor gongs, are two other approved alarm-sounding devices. These to alert everyone to leave the building before fire gains headway, and to call the fire department.
The second big advantage of a sprinkler system is that this same alarm which evacuated the building also automatically transmits an alarm to the fire department. In smaller communities this fire department alarm is connected by a direct wire to the alarm operator or fire station. In larger cities, the sprinkler alarm actuates the coded city fire alarm box in front of the school. Fire fighters frequently arrive on the scene before anyone in the school has any idea where the fire is located, or even if there really is a fire. Then, as though sounding the local alarm and calling the fire department weren’t enough, the sprinkler goes on to extinguish the fire, or at least hold it in check until firemen can complete the job.
The only properly installed sprinkler system is one in which heads ere placed in every space, open or concealed, in the entire building. This includes such unlikely places as the space between the top-floor ceiling and the roof, inside broom closets, under large work tables, inside soffits and drop or false ceilings.
The fourth big advantage is the reduction in fire insurance rates in those cities in which schools are insured.
A good rule of thumb by which any school may be considered safe is that no part of its construction components or contents can be ignited by a single match. If it can, it must be protected by an automatic extinguisher (sprinkler) which will douse it immediately, or hold it in check.
However, a school is invariably stocked with material which will bum readily: books, tablets, writing paper, drawing paper, chemicals for the laboratories, finishes and solvents for the shops, newspapers collected for fund-raising drives, decorations for holidays and special occasions, etc. All create hazards which change an ordinary building, old or new, into a normal school which may be easily ignited with one match. Add to this the mischievous or merely curious hands of a few hundred pupils, and you can see why a school can be a place of hazard, and can only be properly protected by the constant supervision of a well-installed and maintained sprinkler system and detection system.
In planning for school safety, give serious consideration to means of egress other than through smoke-filled halls and corridors. In every classroom, a door to ground level, such as a yard or play area, would provide an excellent avenue of escape for pupils. A door leading to the clean, fresh, safe, outside air would be a godsend.
Because of the disastrous Our Lady of the Angels School Fire in Chicago, four specific ordinances were enacted into our fire code:
- All schools, two stories or more in height and not of fire-resistive construction shall be sprinklered throughout.
- All schools, with some reservations, shall have a fire-alarm box within 100 feet of the main entrance.
- All fire-alarm systems within schools, irrespective of construction, shall be connected to the fire alarm box in front of the building.
- All schools shall have a fire drill once a month, under supervision of a fire prevention bureau inspector.
They should be a part of every fire code.