School Safety Progress
A recent announcement by the Fire Protection Education and Information Section, Los Angeles Fire Department, stated that on May 16 a series of tests would begin in the Robert Louis Stevenson School and continue for 17 weeks. The purpose of the work is to study fire behavior in school buildings and may well turn out to be a milestone in American fire service history.
These experiments are not simulated in the ordinary sense of the word, but are conducted as actual fires in an abandoned school building. This is not a ramshackle school, but a two and three-story brick and reinforced concrete structure built in 1925 on filled ground. It has become too expensive to maintain due to settling, and the Los Angeles Board of Education has permitted the fire department to utilize a 65 by 95-foot three-story section for the tests.
Cooperating and assisting the fire department are the California State Fire Marshal’s office and the Educational Facilities Laboratories of the Ford Foundation. The latter organization has supplied $25,000 to cover necessary expenses of the work. Major fire protection agencies, manufacturers and industries interested in the problem are also cooperating by contributing time and materials.
In making the tests, the Los Angeles Fire Department hopes to determine the effectiveness of present measures for safeguarding children as they exit from a school in the event of a fire, safer design and construction of school buildings, and better fire prevention and suppression methods. The primary emphasis and objective of this work is the preservation of life. In addition, the tests afford an opportunity to observe the reaction of firemen while using protective breathing devices, as well as to test fire fighting equipment and the effectiveness of fire-retardant paints.
It is estimated that the monetary value of the time and materials donated by all parties concerned will approximate $100,000. The fire department itself is maintaining 11 observers in addition to the stand-by engine company and maintenance personnel necessary for the tests. About 1,000 man-days of effort are involved, to say nothing of personnel supplied by outside interests who are actively cooperating.
A complete report of the work will be written upon completion, but sufficient data has already been collected to enable the fire department to make some very pertinent observations, which tend to reinforce convictions held by many fire service officials. It has been noted that the only time during actual fires in the building when the smoke and heat are considered tenable has occurred when complete automatic sprinkler protection is provided. This has already resulted in the recommendation that only complete systems be installed and that these be equipped with electricwater flow alarms interconnected with the fire department alarm systems. The complete enclosure of stairwells has been found to be very effective in preventing heat and smoke from communicating into the various floors of a building. Even with this protection, alternate means of escape are strongly urged. Complete fire and smoke detection systems have been found effective with the latter providing warning very quickly.
In regard to warning, the L. A. fire fighters have found that a three-story school with a good fire drill procedure can be evacuated in from one and one-half to two minutes after a signal has been received. This can be expected to be the normal response time of fire companies located nearby so that this factor is of extreme importance. Without adequate warning and protective devices in schools, it is evident that children’s lives will be seriously jeopardized in the event of fire due to the rapid buildup of heat and smoke before the arrival of the fire department.
A few weeks ago a television program commentator made the observation that in spite of all the publicity in the months following the recent Chicago school fire, very little progress has been noted in the cause of fire safety. The experiments which the Los Angeles Fire Department are conducting are a tremendous contribution, tending to refute this statement, and Chief William Miller and his fire fighters are to be congratulated for their efforts.
Fire behavior has always held mystifying elements and sometimes defies logical explanation. In the case of school fire safety, the entire country will soon be able to weigh the results of the observations of the men involved in these tests. It can be expected that every effort will then be exerted to properly use this information which will be made available through the research efforts of a fire department.