The cultural attitude toward safety in our educational institutions has become focused on security because of the increasing frequency of violence within our schools. This increased emphasis on school security often leads one to forget the other aspect of safety — fire safety. Forgetting this can lead to tragedy.

The requirements for fire protection in today's schools are vastly different from those of the past. It is important to review the history of school fire safety requirements in order to understand why the new requirements are necessary.

Educational fire safety requirements came about, for the most part, after the Our Lady of Angels School fire, December 1, 1958, in Chicago. Sometime after 2 p.m., a fire started in the basement stairwell of the school building. The fire grew in a trash drum and burned undetected for sometime, eventually spreading up the open stairwell and into the second floor corridor. Wooden doors prevented the fire from spreading onto the first floor. It also spread through the basement, where it found an open shaft, allowing it to extend into the cockloft (the area above the second floor ceiling). From the cockloft, the fire broke through the ceiling into the second floor.

By this time, the corridors were impassible, and the nuns and students were trapped. With nowhere to go, children began to jump from the windows, their only path to safety. The fire had time to grow because the fire department, already delayed because of the time it took to detect the fire, was given the address for the parish church instead of receiving the school's address.

The fire was brought under control in a little more than an hour. Although 160 children were saved, 93 students and nuns died. The tragedy changed the path fire safety would follow forever.

Chicago amended their fire code after the fire. The new code included several recommendations, such as: enclosing stairwells with“fireproof” construction; installing fire doors in stairwells, corridors and room partition openings; installing automatic fire sprinklers in all schools and installing a fire detection system with a direct connection to the fire department.

This fire also lead to a series of fire tests entitled "Operation School Burning." Operation School Burning was first conducted in 1959 by the Los Angeles Fire Department. A series of test fires were conducted in a school building to determine better methods of protecting occupants. Automatic fire sprinklers, fire detection systems and fire separation assemblies were included in the study.

The results from these tests laid the foundation for many of today's modern fire protection codes, including the Life Safety Code (LSC), published by the National Fire Protection Association. The LSC has been adopted by many communities throughout the country as the standard for fire protection.

The current edition of the LSC was released in 1997. It sets forth requirements for new and existing educational occupancies. The code defines an educational occupancy as any buildings used for educational purposes for students K-12. Preschools, kindergartens and other buildings, whose principal use is education, are also considered educational occupancies.

Three of the LSC requirements for existing educational occupancies are explained in the following paragraphs.

Means of Egress

The Our Lady of Angels school fire clearly proved that providing protected exiting from an educational occupancy is critical. In existing educational occupancies, rooms normally occupied by preschool, kindergarten or first grade are required to be located on the level of exit discharge, typically the ground level. Rooms used for the second grade in existing educational occupancies are required to be located not more then one story above the level of exit discharge. Existing stairs are required to be enclosed with one-hour, fire-rated construction (capable of withstanding fire for one hour) if they are less than three stories, and enclosed with 2-hour, fire-rated construction if over three stories.

In addition, every room or space greater than 250 sq. ft. is required to have at least one outside window, measuring at least 20 inches in width, 24 inches in height and have a total area of at least 5.7 sq. ft. These size requirements are intended to allow students to be rescued through the openings. The windows are not required in buildings that are protected with an approved automatic sprinkler system or if the room has a door leading directly to the outside of the building.

Protection From Hazards

The Operation School Burning tests showed there is a need to keep hazardous areas separate. Hazardous areas include: boiler and furnace rooms; areas used for storage or processing of hazardous amounts of combustible supplies; areas used for storage or processing of hazardous materials, or flammable or combustible liquids; laundries and maintenance shops. Depending upon the degree of hazard, this protection would either involve enclosing the area with one-hour, fire-rated construction and/or an automatic extinguishing system.

Fire Suppression and Alarm Systems

If the Our Lady of Angels school fire had been detected earlier, losses would have been greatly reduced. As such, all existing educational occupancies are required to be equipped with a fire alarm system. This fire alarm system must be capable of being initiated by manual means (manual pull stations) and by the activation of automatic sprinklers, if they are present. The code does allow for manual pull stations to be removed from school buildings if certain conditions are met. The LSC also requires the fire alarm system to notify all occupants through an audible alarm signal that is distinctive from other signals and will override any other signals when activated. A fire alarm signal is also required to be transmitted to the fire department upon activation of the system.

While the highest level of protection would most likely come by installing automatic sprinklers, they are not required in all educational occupancies. The LSC states that, when student occupancy occurs below the level of exit discharge, sprinklers are required throughout those floors, unless there are windows for rescue and ventilation, and the local building inspector gives approval. Automatic sprinklers are typically provided in new construction because it is less expensive to install them during construction.

Even with these extensive fire safety standards, fires in educational occupancies continue to occur. Knowing where these fires occur, and how they start, will help to prevent them in the future.

Fire Loss History

In the years from 1992 to 1996, there were 8,000 fires in educational occupancies, causing almost $100 million in damages. Of these 8,000 fires, 23 percent started in lavatories, locker rooms and cloakrooms, while 11 percent started in hallways or corridors. More than 50 percent of these fires were incendiary or suspicious in origin.

Knowing how the fires start is only half of the story. The other half involves knowing who is starting the fires. Juveniles make up nearly 50 percent of the arrests for arson. From these statistics, one can conclude that at least some of the educational fires were started by juveniles.

What should this mean to you? Firesetter programs and fire safety education are extremely important at all grades levels. Perhaps one of the best known programs is NFPA’s“Learn Not to Burn” curriculum. It contains materials that aid educators in teaching children fire safety.

Due in large part to fire protection standards such as NFPA’s Life Safety Code, there has not been a fire involving more than 10 deaths in an education or educational related property for more than 20 years. That is an impressive statistic, but everyone agrees that the death of one child is too many.

Romeo P. Gervais is a fire protection engineer with the Chicago Office of Gage-Babcock & Associates, a fire protection and security consulting engineering firm.