School Fires

The bad news about fires in general, and school fires in particular, is that it usually takes a tragic occurrence with a significant loss of life before codes are enacted that require measures designed to prevent similar fires from occurring again. The good news is that such new requirements are generally highly effective and dramatically reduce both fires and loss of life.

As two examples in non-school buildings, Dennis Gentzel, PE, fire program specialist, United States Fire Administration, Emmitsburg, Md., cites two nightclub fires. The first was the famous Coconut Grove in the 1940s. The club had revolving doors, but they became jammed with panicked people trying to escape. This is why, today, whenever you see a building with revolving doors, you find a simple push-open door next to it.

In 2003, sprinkler systems were required for areas that held over 300 people. Now, after 100 people died in another nightclub fire, the number of assembled people triggering the requirement for a sprinkler system has been significantly reduced.

In terms of school fires, undoubtedly the most heart-rending was the one in Chicago, which, in 1958, burned down Our Lady of Angels, where 92 children and 3 nuns died. This two-story structure, says Gentzel, “had no sprinkler system, no fire alarm, no smoke and heat detector, and no automatic connection to the fire department.” He adds that it started December 1, at 2:20 pm, in the basement in a cardboard trash barrel, and went 15 to 30 minutes undetected, allowing the stairwells to be filled with hot gases and fumes —  themselves lethal. Apparently, the fire quicky burned down the hallways along the paper on the walls.

Another dynamic, says Gentzel, is that the school had a wide staircase, which would have seemed to make for easy exiting from the two story structure. Yet, all the victims were trapped inside. The reason, Gentzel explains, is that stairwells should have been protected, as they generally are now, with doors that automatically shut at the signs of a power failure, flood or fire.

However, there needs to be other doors that allow for quick exits. This can, at times, conflict with the security needs. For example, exits may be restricted for security reasons but would prevent escape should a fire occur. As a result, fire safety experts have increasingly been asked to work in conjunction with security advisors to recommend security procedures consistent with the needs of fire safety.

All of these changes are reflected in various codes. There is the National Fire Code and the International Fire Code, state fire and building codes and each locality has its own variation on the codes. But this is not as confusing as it might first appear, since all of the codes cover the same main essentials.

The result of these codes has been a dramatic decrease in school fires, especially in terms of fatalities. According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), published by the U.S. Fire Administration, for the three years of 2003 to 2005, in a paper titled “School Fires” (the source for the statistics used in this article, unless stated otherwise), there were no fatalities for this period. There were, however, an average of about 100 injuries annually, as well an estimated $85 million in yearly losses resulting from about 14,700 fires that required a fire department response. (These figures relate to non-adult schools.)

Forty percent of these school-related fires occurred outdoors on school property. Trash fires accounted for 36 percent of these outside fires, and fires in open fields or woods accounted for an additional 19 percent. Forty-three percent of fires on school properties, an estimated 6,300 fires, were structure fires. Slightly over half of these were confined to the area where the fire started, such as a small cooking fire in the kitchen area (20 percent) or a fire started in a trash can (28 percent). Six percent of the fires on school properties were vehicle fires.

An easier set of figures to grasp, in terms of significance, is that the three leading causes for school structure fires are: incendiary or suspicious‚ 32 percent; cooking, 29 percent; and heating, nine percent.

Incendiary or suspicious, or, more simply put, student-caused fires, are not found in preschool or day cares. In elementary schools, these student-caused fires constitute 25 percent, which almost doubles to 47 percent in middle, junior and high schools. Moreover, the leading area of fire origin for school structure fires is the lavatory. This suggests that younger children are, literally, playing with fire, whereas with older kids, something more serious appears to be involved. The lavatory is one area free from adult supervision, where a teenager might smoke and accidently start a fire in the trash basket, or decide to intentionally start a fire because no one is looking.

The NFIRS paper classifies juvenile fire setters into three basic classifications — curiosity/experimentation, reactionary and delinquent.

The first group involves younger children who experiment out of curiosity with common sources of ignition such as matches or lighters, and lack supervision. These children usually do not understand the danger associated with fire play. Children who play with fire once are five times more likely to experiment with fire again unless professional intervention takes place.

The second classification, youth who do not have adequate problem-solving skills or cannot express their feelings, send warning signals when they use fire in a reactionary way to convey their feelings.

Jennifer Mieth, public education manager for the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services in Stow, Mass., is one of many professionals who believe that school fires are under-reported. In her state, more than half of the fires are attributed to cooking, 15 percent to indoor rubbish fires and only nine percent to arson. “Though schools are required to report all fires, many administrators want to keep things in-house. Their attitude is, ‘We know how to take care of our kids.’” And they do, she says, “The child caught playing with fire may not be a bad kid, but he may be sexually abused at home and is crying for help. Ignoring that child’s needs does not help him, and puts at risk public property and life.”

The third group, classified as delinquent and typically comprised of older children, set fires for an assortment of reasons that are usually peer-driven, such as pranks, dares or showing off. Most members of this group do not realize the legal repercussions of setting fires. However, adolescents who do understand the legal repercussions, yet continue to set fires, represent a growing problem. These fires qualify as intentional, with little respect for life or property. Youth in this group are more likely to associate with gangs and other gang-like activity, and may possess a potential for future violent behavior.

Experts agree that the solution to all student-initiated fires is for school and fire officials to work together, with the school reporting all incidents. Responses should be tailored to the age of the child and the intention of the child.
Arson is a crime and should be treated as such. But for the younger child not aware of the possible consequences of his playing with fire, the proper response is “counseling and education rather than punishment,” says James Greeson, state fire marshall with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

“Educating not simply individuals, but also the entire student body, can also be extremely helpful and significantly reduce incidents,” adds Mieth. For instance, she reports that Massachusetts has a student awareness program in which trained firefighters teach age-appropriate lessons to different grade levels. These lessons can be taught so that the child takes his awareness of fire safety with him to practice in his home.

Mieth reports that Massachusetts has a law that requires the superintendent, fire chief and police chief to put together a multi-hazard evacuation plan so that everybody knows just what to do in case of a fire, hurricane, bomb threat, shooting or other emergency. Four fire drills are required each year, the first having to occur within the first three days of school so that, with the sounding of the fire alarm, everybody is evacuated every single time.

Gentzel recommends schools to invite the fire marshall to do an inspection. Fire alarm suppliers should come in to check their systems quarterly, and sprinkler and other systems should also be routinely checked and maintained.

Greeson recommends that school officials should make sure that exits are not blocked, that housekeeping is in order without combustibles in hallways or classrooms. Only limited amounts of paper, especially decorations, should be on walls — paper announcements should generally be within glass cases. Special care should be taken in terms of decorations such as for Halloween, in terms of both paper displays and what the kids may wear to school as costumes.

In terms of kitchen fires, generally caused by stovetop grease, Mieth says, the two slogans of their new campaign are “Stand by your pan” and “Put a lid on it.” She suggests that large gatherings, such as dances, with loud music and low lights, might require a trained manager, as at a nightclub. She also cautions special effects for theater and other events be checked out. Chemicals should not be bought in bulk because they are cheap, nor should they be stored alphabetically in the chemistry lab, where two combustibles might be side by side.

All agree that thorough fire prevention measures take time and concerted effort, but it is worth the cost compared to that of a fire.