Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2015.

What Price Security?
Shaken by acts of violence, schools are implementing new measures to keep shooters and other intruders out. Can security and fire safety coexist?  By Jesse Roman

A POLICE OFFICER VIOLENTLY BANGS on a classroom door with a sledgehammer, knocking off the latch, but the door barely budges. He repeatedly wedges a breaching tool into place, prying the door from the side and from beneath, but the metal doorjamb inside the classroom holds. No one, at least with conventional tools, is getting in.

The officer’s efforts are part of a promotional video for one of the many classroom barricade devices that have hit the market in recent years. The devices differ in design, but most attach to the inside of a classroom door or frame, and all have one basic objective: to keep active shooters or other potential attackers out of a classroom. It’s an idea that has gained considerable attention from school districts nationwide in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and if the video is any indication, the barricades work.

That’s good news if the sole aim is to keep a bad guy out. But what if the bad guy is already inside a classroom and it’s police or firefighters who can’t get in? What if kids are inside a classroom in lockdown while a fire is set and they need to get out? Could they do it quickly enough to survive? Those are some of the questions fire officials are asking as schools move to boost security procedures and infrastructure to protect occupants and address the concerns of fearful parents and teachers.

More In a Flash

In the haste to tighten security, though, tried-and-true fire and life safety considerations are being compromised in some cases, said Robert Solomon, division manager for Building and Life Safety Codes at NFPA. “From a fire standpoint, we’ve done such a great job making schools safe that it’s not even on parents’ minds anymore,” he said. “But when you pick up the newspaper and see that three kids have been shot or stabbed at a school, everyone naturally starts to think, ‘How can we address this?’”

The answers have included putting locks on doors—or barricading them with bookshelves, desks, or whatever is on hand—delaying egress during a fire alarm, and replacing fire alarm drills with lockdown drills, Solomon said. “Those are all well-intentioned, but some of those things violate the fire-safety provisions that we have worked on for 100 years. The question is, how do you safely do both? The collection of stakeholders involved in answering this question is quite broad, but if we work together we can figure it out.”

The search for consensus

At least one state has decided to take action on the matter. In late June, the Ohio Legislature, taking up the cause of parents angered in part by a 2012 high school shooting that killed three and injured two, passed a law making it illegal for the state fire code to ban the use of school barricade devices. The law directed the state’s Board of Buildings and Standards to craft new language in the code to allow the devices.

Many fire and life safety experts are urging schools and communities to take an informed look at how to balance fire safety with school security. Finding a way to effectively do both was a central goal of the two-day School Safety, Codes and Security Workshop, an event sponsored by NFPA in Maryland last December. The workshop brought together about 70 stakeholders, including firefighters, police officers, architects, security experts, school officials, code enforcers, building managers, and more. A number of priorities were identified at the workshop that will likely impact NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®; NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code®; NFPA 1, Fire Code; NFPA 730, Guide for Premises Security; and NFPA 731, Installation of Electric Premises Security Systems, Solomon said.

NFPA 730, which is the farthest along in the revision cycle of that group of documents, has “extensive revisions” proposed based on the workshop conclusions, says Richard Roux, the guide’s staff liaison. Proposed changes include new definitions for lockdown and shelter in place, as well as guidance on classroom door locks, entry vestibules, school visitor management, school exterior features, managing school keys and credentials, and more.

“School security is a big challenge,” says Roux, whose committee delayed scheduled meetings to wait for the school security workshop report to be released. “This will help, but it’s not going to happen in a few months. This is a long process.”

The 2018 editions of NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000 will likely add substantial new school security language as well, according to Solomon. NFPA 101 focuses primarily on fire and similar natural hazards, he said, and with few exceptions, such as health care, security has been "an afterthought." The technical committee responsible for educational and day care occupancies was scheduled to meet in Milwaukee in late August to draft changes to both NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000, just after this issue of NFPA Journal went to press. Minutes of that meeting, as well as the first draft report, are available online for both NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000.

The changes to NFPA 101 will likely be a mix of mandate and suggestion, and could include more specific language on locking doors; exceptions to allow fewer fire drills and more lockdown and security drills; defined security concepts and terms; and procedures for delayed evacuation to avoid situations where a shooter pulls a fire alarm to lure students outside. Related changes dealing with the messaging and communication aspect, including introduction of mass notification system concepts, are also included in this debate, with various NFPA technical committees working on NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000.

In addition to code revisions, workshop attendees also suggested creating a new NFPA school security guidance document with all of the concepts, guidelines, and code requirements laid out in one location. Many details still must be worked out, but it’s time the issue was addressed, Solomon said.

“This topic has been floating around for the last 15 years,” he said. “Every time there’s a school shooting or stabbing, we get calls from fire marshals and chiefs asking, ‘A school wants to buy special locks to put on the doors—what do I do?’ It’s gotten to the point where there’s enough critical mass to this issue that we need to take action.”

The Ohio Example

PERHAPS NO PLACE BETTER EXEMPLIFIES the security-versus-fire-safety question better than the state of Ohio, whose history has taught residents the urgency of both. In 1908, 172 children and three adults died in a fire at the Lake View School in the town of Collinwood. An investigation concluded that only one of the double doors leading outside was open; the other was fastened with a spring at the top, causing students to become wedged in the exit vestibule in the frenzy and unable to escape. 

While that event is a distant memory to most Ohioans, more recently, in February, 2012, a 17-year old boy opened fire in the cafeteria of a high school in Chardon, Ohio, killing three students and injuring two. 

After the Chardon shootings, Ohio Fire Marshal Larry Flowers’ office began receiving calls from fire chiefs around the state with safety concerns about classroom barricades. Law enforcement had started touting the devices to school districts, and some schools were already purchasing barricades or considering it, Flowers said. Retrofitting classroom doors with code-compliant traditional locksets can cost between $325 and $350 per door, according to a report by the Ohio Board of Building Standards. The cost of many of the secondary barricade devices is under $100, and some retail for half that.

“The bottom-line concern for the fire chiefs was what effect these barricades would have on egress,” Flowers recalled in an interview. “The second piece was how to get through them if they are deployed. Can they be unlocked from the outside? None of these are listed or tested or meet any standards.” 

But that didn’t stop school districts from adopting them. In early 2015, after law enforcement suggested use of the barricades to school officials to thwart shooters, parents in the Southwest Licking school district outside of Columbus raised $30,000 to outfit every classroom with the devices. However, in February, the Ohio Board of Building Standards informed the district it could not use the devices because they did not comply with Ohio’s building code. As with NFPA 101, Ohio’s codes say that locks or latches must be able to be disengaged so that a door can be opened with only one operation; that operation cannot include the use of a key, tool, or special knowledge or effort.

The school district appealed to the Ohio Department of Commerce’s Board of Building Appeals, which ultimately voted 4–1 against the use of barricades. Meanwhile, the Ohio Board of Building Standards held two hearings with various stakeholders to determine if the code should be altered to accommodate the devices. In July, the standards board released its final report, which summarily rejected the idea of allowing the devices on the grounds that they require too much effort and too many steps to disengage so that people can exit. 

While that could have been the end of the story, by the time it came out the report was essentially meaningless. Just weeks before, the Ohio Legislature, taking up the cause of the angry parents, passed a law making it illegal for the state fire code to ban the use of school barricade devices. The law directed the Board of Building Standards to craft new language in the code to allow the devices. 

“The work continues, and the dialogue will continue,” Flowers said, adding that more input from model codes such as NFPA 101 on school security would “absolutely” help states like Ohio. “We have until March to issue some guidelines or rules. The Board of Building Standards will take on the task of bringing stakeholders together and start developing rules. Even though the bill’s language prevents the fire code from prohibiting the use of the barricades, we will certainly offer our advice and we look forward to the next phase.”

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal.