Preventing Disaster

On Dec. 1, 1958, the fire at Our Lady of the Angels elementary school in Chicago started sometime after 2:00 PM. A student sneaking a cigarette may have dropped a hot ash into debris in a hallway. The blaze erupted almost instantly and roared up the unenclosed stairwell.

As the firefighters approached, they gaped in horror at the sight of children leaping out of windows to escape the inferno. The fire fighters tried to catch them or at least break their falls.

Eighty-seven children and three nuns died in the fire, which was believed to be the third worst school fire in the U.S. up until then. The worst occurred in 1937 when an explosion destroyed a school in New London, TX, killing 294. A fire in a Collinwood, OH, school killed 175 in 1908.

But the tragedy at Our Lady of the Angels proved more important than the others. While investigating the fire, it came out that the two-story brick school building — with a fire escape at one end of the building — had undergone an inspection by the fire department just two months before. Inspectors found that the building complied with all safety regulations.

The idea that a school considered perfectly safe could burn to the ground and cost so many lives set off a nationwide movement to modernize and strengthen building and fire codes for K-12 schools.

Since then, fire prevention and fire safety have been built into three different codes.

While different jurisdictions adapt codes to their own specific needs, the three basic codes cover building construction and renovation, life safety issues, and day-to-day fire prevention, says Don Bliss, director of the NI2 Center for Infrastructure Expertise and formerly the New Hampshire State Fire Marshall.

Three Codes to Study
According to Bliss, the most commonly used building code is the International Building Code, which was developed by the International Code Council (ICC). It covers construction and renovation issues. Local communities use it and modify it to fit their special needs. “That is becoming less common,” says Bliss. “There is a lot of pressure today to standardize codes.”

Second is a code that deals with getting people out of buildings in emergencies. A commonly used code is the Life Safety Code published by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA). It is designated NFPA 101, and it covers things such as the width of exits, emergency lighting, exit signs, and alarms.

“NFPA 101 also dictates the kinds of enclosures required for stairwells,” Bliss says. “Open stairwells turn buildings into chimneys. That is what happened in the fire at Our Lady of the Angels. Open stairwells allowed fire and smoke to travel through the entire building.

“Today, the goal is to contain the fire in a room, in a hallway, or a stairwell long enough for students and others to leave the classroom, walk through the corridors, and exit the building.”

Depending on the size and height of the building as well as the type of construction, NFPA 101 also contains requirements for fire detection and sprinkler systems, continues Bliss.

Thirty-nine states and numerous local jurisdictions have adopted NFPA 101, Bliss says.

The third code is the fire prevention code. There are at least two codes that jurisdictions can choose between. The ICC publishes the International Fire Code. NFPA has developed NFPA 1, also known as the Uniform Fire Code.

This type of code deals with conditions inside buildings. It requires proper maintenance for electrical and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems. It specifies schedules for testing sprinkler systems and alarms. It says that exits must be kept clear and the doors unlocked.

Are Codes Effective?
The stronger codes developed in the wake of the fire at Our Lady of the Angels seem to have proven effective.

According to “School Fires,” a 2006 report in the Topical Fire Research Series published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), no one was killed in a school structure fire during the three years between 2003 and 2005. Still, schools called the fire department to battle an annual average of 14,700 structural and non-structural fires at schools over the period. Property damage from those fires totaled $85M over the three-year period.

The electrical distribution system caused about six percent of the structure fires during the period. Miscellaneous equipment caused approximately seven percent of the structure fires. Heating systems started about eight percent.

Building, life safety, and fire codes seem to be suppressing structural fires. Bliss also credits sprinkler systems. “Fire detection and sprinkler systems are eliminating catastrophic losses caused when a fire spreads from its room of origin,” he says.

But problems remain. FEMA’s research showed that cooking causes approximately 28 percent of school structure fires. “Maintenance is key to preventing cooking fires,” continues Bliss. “Many kitchen fires involved the exhaust systems above the stoves in school kitchens. Grease builds up and catches on fire. So regular cleaning is important, as is a good chemical-based fire extinguishing system.”

The Main Cause Of School Fires
While complying with the codes can by and large prevent or at least limit the number of fires started by the electrical or heating system, an appliance, or a greasy kitchen hood, they can do little to prevent most fires in today’s schools — because people start most of the fires.

“Juvenile fire-setting is a huge problem,” says Bliss. “More than half of all arson fires in general are set by juveniles.”

FEMA found that 47 percent of all middle and high school structure fires and 25 percent of elementary school structure fires from 2003 to 2005 had suspicious origins. FEMA sorts young fire-starters into three groups: curious experimenters, reactors, and delinquents.

The first group usually includes younger children who, out of curiosity, experiment with matches or lighters, and lack supervision, says the FEMA report. They don’t understand how dangerous fire can be. Worse, a child that plays with fire once is, without counseling, likely to experiment again.

The second group includes students that have trouble communicating their feelings. Starting a fire might be a reaction to being bullied or being caught up in some other situation that elicits a negative reaction.

Finally, there are older children who set fires as pranks, in response to a dare, or to show off. Most don’t realize or consider the consequences. The third group also includes gang members and young people with a propensity for violence.

“Many communities and fire departments have outreach programs to address fire-setting behavior,” Bliss says. “With young curiosity fire-setters, these programs educate parents and children about fire and its consequences.

Fire-setting behavior in older kids might reflect family issues such as divorce or abuse. The kind of intervention depends on the issue.

The authorities will deal with juvenile delinquent fire-setters.”

The FEMA report recommends a partnership among teachers, fire fighters, and the judicial system to identify and counsel young curiosity fire-setters as early as possible. The report urges teachers, administrators, and staff to report all fires immediately to the local fire service. “Quick and full reporting helps the community recognize children using fire in inappropriate and unsafe ways,” says the report. “By providing fire education and, if necessary, psychological intervention, the chances for reducing juvenile-set fires increase substantially.”