New Year, New Program?

The new year has started, and for most of us that means our school district has completed about half of the academic year. During the first part of the year, schools participated in Fire Prevention Week, conducted monthly fire drills, new employee training was completed and, over the holiday break, fire and life safety systems were tested and maintained — all essential parts of a fire and life safety program. Now, the task turns to looking forward to projects that will be designed and implemented during the summer recess. This is also a good time to focus on fire and life safety program goals or take the opportunity to develop new program goals for the next year.

Fire and life safety programs exist for three basic reasons: first, to protect lives; second, to protect operations; and third, to protect property and the environment. I have talked to many life safety program managers that complain that they don’t have adequate budgets to address all the life safety issues they face in their facilities. When asked to show their yearly request for funds and the three- and five-year goals for improvements, they don’t have them — they could show requests for funding but not tie the request back to an overall improvement program.

For these groups, I suggest making a goal for the year to take inventory of the needs for each facility in your real estate portfolio. Only when you have a clear picture of all needs within the category of fire and life safety, can you start developing a plan to break down needs into yearly goals.

Keep in mind that physical facility needs are only a part of fire and life safety goals for a district. Goals should be set to measure staff performance related to understanding fire prevention and emergency preparedness. There are online programs that districts can use to train and then measure how well employees understand how to prevent fires in the classroom, and what to do when emergencies arise.

If your district currently has no way of measuring performance other than during a fire drill, I would suggest adding as a goal for this year the investment in the development of a program that measures employee performance as it relates to fire and life safety. Once testing is completed, results can be analyzed and training goals and objectives set to improve performance the next year.

Specific goals related to prevention activities can also be set for the coming school year. Even in the best schools, housekeeping can be improved. There is always the ability to reduce the amount of combustible material present and keep work areas (think of back room work areas), hallways and stairs free of obstructions that hamper egress. Take out trash and waste in areas that are more prone to arson fires and, lastly, looking at ways to reduce the amount of chemicals needed in not only the classroom, but to service the building.

You can also focus in on common problems your district experiences during inspections. A quick review of incident reports, fire inspection reports or a conversation with the local fire authority will probably identify electrical fire safety as an area for focus. Set a goal to reduce the use of extension cords in the classroom, to inspect all equipment power cords for fraying, brittleness or damaged wires.

A quick Internet search will identify many school related fires attributed to electrical problems — this will be an easy target and one that administration can support.

Simply stating prevention goals and publicizing them will get some staff to take the initiative to reduce clutter and clean out their spaces. Others will need more guidance to reach these goals. Invest a few hours creating information sheets so that they can get the guidance they need. A few hours creating information sheets will reduce the time you have to physically go out and look at issues. Staff in the building will know what to look for and eliminate a potential problem without the need to call out staff from the central office.

When it is difficult to see or measure progress because of budget problems, goals can help you measure success that you can show to administrators. And that not only protects lives, operations and property, but should also protect you and the district.

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.