Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

Fire Safety School

Fire Safety School


Between 2007 and 2011, the number of fires in educational properties averaged 5,690 per year, according to “Structure Fires in Educational Property,” a September 2011 report by Richard Campbell published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Of those 5,690 fires, 4,060 occurred in nursery, elementary, middle or high schools. So, that means 71 percent of the fires that occur in educational structures occur in preK-12 schools.

The report also notes that 54 percent of the fires that occur in preK-12 schools occur between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Nearly half (49 percent) of these fires are set intentionally. About one-third occurred in a restroom. Perhaps surprisingly, just 13 percent of the fires occurred in a cafeteria kitchen or cooking area.

All told, these fires caused 70 injuries — no deaths — and $70 million in property damage.

Think about that for a minute. Over the five-year period of 2007 through 2011, there were 20,300 fires and just 70 injuries. That speaks volumes about our ability to detect, suppress and respond to school fires.

Fire alarm systems

Fire alarm systems represent a nearly universal challenge to school districts across the country. Most districts have a collection of older, proprietary alarm systems made by different manufacturers. Each system must be inspected and serviced by technicians certified by different manufacturers. Worse, as the systems age, it becomes more and more difficult to find replacement parts.

Fire Safety School


Newer systems are beginning to address these problems. For instance, the Cheatham County School District in Ashland City, Tenn., recently installed Honeywell Fire-Lite Alarms system in its 12 schools — six elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools.

Replacing a problematic patchwork of systems from different vendors, the Fire-Lite Alarms system features non-proprietary technology. Thanks to the open-standard technology, any licensed fire alarm dealer can service the system.

“We wanted something that no matter who, what, when or where, they could work on the system at the drop of a hat,” says Joey Dority, the district maintenance director. “That was the biggest selling point with the new systems.”

The non-proprietary alarm technology provided another benefit: it could reuse the existing wiring and cabling systems. The money saved on cabling costs enabled the district to replace all of its alarm system devices, including smoke detectors, pull stations, horns, strobes and so on.

“By re-using the wire in all 12 schools, we probably saved between $120,000 and $150,000,” says Mike White, account executive for Interactive Systems of Nashville, the installer.

Interactive installed an addressable fire alarm control panel in each of the 12 schools, scaling each panel to the size and requirements of each school.

Each elementary school needed a mix of 75 pull stations, smoke detectors and heat detectors. The middle schools and high schools each needed nearly 200 initiating devices.

The installation also included new notification appliances including strobes, horn/strobes and speaker/strobes.

According to Maintenance Director Dority, the installation required only 10 weeks, and none of the buildings had to close for more than four days.

Results include ease of use and a reduction of service calls from two or three per week to possibly one per month.

“If a principal calls and tells me there is an issue, they already have an idea of what’s going on before I get on site,” Dority says. “Sometimes we can even resolve the issue over the phone.”

Sprinkler systems

More and more schools are using automatic extinguishing equipment such as sprinklers, according to “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers,” a 2013 NFPA report authored by John R. Hall, Jr.

For the report, Hall assembled a chart showing the increasing percentage automatic extinguishing equipment present in fires in various kinds of buildings.

Educational properties with fires reported that 16 percent used the equipment between 1980 and 1984. For the period of 2007 through 2011, the percentage increased to 42 percent.

It would probably be a mistake to say that 42 percent of educational buildings are now equipped with some kind of automatic extinguishing equipment. Remember, that is the percentage of buildings using the equipment that had fires. Nevertheless, that percentage grew dramatically from 16 percent to 42 percent between 1980 and 2011.

Sprinkler installations are growing because data shows that they save lives and preserve property. Hall’s sprinkler study compares civilian deaths per thousand fires associated with wet-pipe sprinklers by property use. The data doesn’t include educational buildings, but it does cover public assembly buildings, various residential buildings, store or office buildings, manufacturing facilities and warehouses. For all these buildings, sprinklers appeared to reduce deaths per thousand fires by 86 percent.

Fire Safety School


Fire Safety School


Saving Lives, Property. Automatic sprinklers are widely recognized as one of the most effective tools of fire protection. According to one National Fire Protection Association report, in over 100 years of use, there has never been a multiple fatality of building occupants from fire in a building protected by a properly designed, installed and maintained sprinkler system. The report goes on to state that records of fires in buildings with supervised automatic fire sprinkler systems have indicated successful extinguishment or control in more than 99 percent of fire incidents. It goes without saying that as effective as sprinkler systems are, most professionals recommend backing up those systems with fire extinguishers placed at regular intervals throughout a school.

On the property side, Hall did look at educational buildings. On average, properties without sprinklers suffered property losses of $21,000 in a fire. By contrast, sprinklered educational buildings suffered an average loss per fire of just $8,000.

Broward County Public Schools has outfitted the majority of its buildings — more than 100 — with new sprinkler systems over the past decade or so. Ft. Lauderdale-based Sprinklermatic Inc. handled the installations, which total approximately 22,000 feet of pipe and 1,300 sprinkler heads.

The sprinklering work began in 2003 when district officials had to install a sprinkler system in one of its oldest buildings, Northside Elementary, in order to meet new codes and regulations.

The age and structure of the building required careful work. Sprinklermatic Vice President Tim O’Brien recommended Blaze-Master Systems, a sprinklering brand manufactured by Wickliffe, Ohio-based Lubrizol.

BlazeMaster is a chlorinated polyvinyl chloride fire sprinkler system (CPVC). CPVC’s light weight makes it fast and easy to install. “It is ideally suited for light hazard applications such as school buildings,” says Mark Knurek, regional market manager for BlazeMaster. “BlazeMaster does not corrode, is much lighter, easier and faster to install (than steel pipe), making it contractor-preferred.

“It also has superior hydraulic performance, which means more efficient sprinkler systems can be designed and installed. These features lead to a lower cost of ownership for the building.”

Broward County officials resisted CPVC, expressing their interest in steel. O’Brien and Knurek persuaded them that CPVC was perhaps the only choice for an old, brittle building. “We had to teach them the benefits of CPVC,” O’Brien says. “The ease of installation sold them. We showed them that we could install the product without tearing apart ceilings,” which would speed the process and place less stress on the building’s infrastructure.

O’Brien also notes that the flexibility of CPVC systems worked well with the unpredictability of installations in buildings greater than 50 years old, in which architectural and structural changes may not have remained consistent over the years. With CPVC pipe and fittings, contractors don’t need to worry about starting and stopping pipes at specific points during installation — the flexibility of the product enables contractors to stop and start where necessary throughout the process.

This was particularly important to Broward County Schools. One building in particular called for an installation in under two weeks. CPVC made it possible, says Knurek. A comprable system would have involved hours of setup and cleanup, not to mention time spent in designing and prefabricating materials.

“The flexibility of CPVC allows you to make changes on the fly, if necessary,” O’Brien says. “The product allows you to work above ceiling in an occupied building with little to no interruption of operations, and it brings fluidity to the project.”

One caveat, as effective as sprinkler systems are, most professionals recommend backing up those systems with fire extinguishers placed at regular intervals throughout a school.


The final piece of fire safety is response. Modern fire alarm systems typically provide comprehensive communications capabilities. The provide for calls to the fire department as well as siren and public address communications, indoors and out, to alert students, faculty and staff to an emergency.

Fire Safety School


Regular fire drills, a part of K-12 school life for decades, help ensure that everyone get out of the building quickly and safely. An important part of today’s response involves communicating with that may be off campus. Schools, today, typically allow students, faculty and staff to leave the facility for lunch or other activities. Of course, field trips are a staple of school activities that take students off campus.

Security professionals recommend that anyone off campus carry a cell phone and program the phone number into the mass notification system. The same recommendation goes out to supervisors accompanying elementary students for off-campus activities. When a fire alarm goes off, automatic calls should go out to everyone off campus advising them of the problem and directing them to a safe gathering location.

These kinds of steps should be part of the emergency action plans for the district and individual schools.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all organizations must have an emergency action plan that addresses how everyone, including the disabled should respond in the event of a fire.

These are the three keys to fire safety: detect, suppress and respond. To be safe, every school requires a comprehensive capability in each of these areas. While it remains true that PreK-12 schools are doing a great job at this, there is always, as they say, room for improvement.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .