Reducing the Likelihood of School Fires

Recently I was asked how many fires really occur in kindergarten through high school occupancies. The context of the question was in relation to how much time should be spent on fire and life safety issues in schools given all the other responsibilities overworked facilities staff have. My response was one I have used many times: I don’t know the specific numbers, but I would get the information and pass it on to the person asking the question.

The answer to the first part was easy to find. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has a one-stop data shop that fire officials can turn to for information about fires in different occupancy groups. According to the NFPA, between 2003 and 2006 there were 4,870 structure fires in preschool through grade 12 buildings in the United States. These fires injured 65 people and caused $74.2 million in direct property damage. Leading causes of educational building fires were trash and rubbish fires and intentional fires followed by cooking equipment fires. Fires were started in trashcans, kitchen areas and bathrooms. The item first ignited was most likely trash. The most peak time for a fire was on a weekday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. From these statistics, it can be seen that focusing busy staff on a few locations can reduce the likelihood of fires in schools.

Trashcan fires in bathrooms are almost always intentionally set fires. Scheduling trash removal just prior to the peak fire times between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. will remove combustible materials. This in turn will help deter individuals from starting a fire. Those that are started will have minimal amounts of material present and cause minimal damage. Schools can also replace combustible trash containers with trash containers that are noncombustible, further reducing the materials that can be used to start a fire.

If trash removal is problematic between 11 and 2, simply asking staff to walk into these locations during this time period to monitor trash levels will help reduce the chances of intentionally started fires.

Kitchen area fires in most cases are limited in size to cooking or warming equipment. In these locations, proper inspections of equipment prior to the start of the school year, and then regular audits during the year to verify that equipment is kept clean and operating properly, will help reduce the number of fires in kitchens. Training kitchen staff on the very basics of cooking fire safety will also help reduce the number of cooking fires — 16 percent of school kitchen fires are classified as contained cooking fires —on stoves and in ovens. Posting signs to never leave cooking unattended and reminding staff to check temperature and time settings for the foods they are cooking will help lower the risk of fires in kitchens. In many locations, kitchen managers may want to post signs in English and other languages that may make it easier for kitchen staff to understand.

The good news is that, overall, schools are one of the safest locations for students and employees. It is highly unlikely that they will experience a fire that spreads past the room of origin, and it is even further unlikely that they will be injured or die due to a fire in a K to 12 school. And this became the answer to the second part of the original question.

In reality, many people spend a part of their time engaged in fire safety in schools. This is in part due to the multiple layers of fire safety that schools are subject to. They are still rigorously inspected by fire marshals at the local or state level, building codes are very strong when it comes to active and passive fire safety systems — fire sprinklers are a form of active systems while fire-rated walls and doors would be considered passive systems — and districts are still focusing on training that reduces the risk of fire in their school buildings.

Risk managers and insurance companies conduct their own reviews of facilities, and school staff, from maintenance, teachers and administrators, all see issues on a daily basis and can take action to report fire safety concerns. Is there a standard for how much time should be spent? No. Schools wanting to keep a record of no fires will look at the activities that take place within them, understand the risks and take action to reduce or eliminate that specific fire safety issue.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.