NFPA Journal®, September/October 2003
When discussing the fire problem in educational occupancies, it's important to define what an educational occupancy is. According to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, an educational occupancy is one that's "used for educational purposes through the twelfth grade by six or more persons for four or more hours per day or more than 12 hours per week." This includes kindergartens, elementary schools, junior high or middle schools, and high schools, but it doesn't include colleges and universities.
In fact, colleges and universities fit several other occupancy classifications, depending on the part of the facility being evaluated. For example, classrooms can be classified as business occupancies, while lecture halls with occupant loads of 50 or more can be classified as assembly occupancies. And residential areas fall into one of the residential classifications.
Private homes housing three or fewer outsiders are categorized as one- and two-family dwellings, and residences in which 4 to 16 outsiders live can be classified as a lodging and rooming house. This latter classification includes many fraternity houses and homes that have been converted to student housing. Then there are the typical dormitories with sleeping accommodations for more than 16. These can be classified as hotels and dormitories.
Given these definitions, it's rare to hear of a student dying in a fire in an educational occupancy today, despite the frequency of structural fires in such occupancies. Based on NFPA statistics1, there were 7,600 structure fires in educational occupancies between 1994 and 1998, 50 percent of which were incendiary or suspicious in nature. This is significantly higher than the 27 percent of incendiary and suspicious fires that occurred in other non-residential occupancies over the same period. And FBI statistics2 for the same period show that approximately 50 percent of the people arrested for arson were under 18 years of age. Juveniles are obviously a major factor in the school fire problem.
The reason fires in non-residential elementary and high school buildings rarely kill anyone is due, in part, to code changes resulting from several fires early in the 20th century. These fires include the 1908 Lakeview Grammar School fire in Collingwood, Ohio, which killed 175; the 1937 gas explosion in New London, Texas, which killed 294; and the 1958 fire in Our Lady of Angels grade school in Chicago, which killed 95. Among the code changes were new requirements for frequent evacuation drills, inspection of the egress facilities, and control of interior finishes and decorations.
However, it's not as rare to hear of a fire involving loss of life at colleges and universities, particularly in student housing. This isn't surprising, given that most fire fatalities occur where people sleep. In off-campus college housing, other factors contributing to life loss from fire include unsupervised activities and minimal maintenance, since off-campus housing is often found in lower-rent districts. In addition, changes made to this type of housing may not be submitted to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for review, and the AHJ frequently doesn't have enough staff to inspect these occupancies as often as it should.
The life loss in educational occupancies is very low, but this is no reason to reduce inspections and enforcement. In fact, a major reason for such low losses is surely the enforcement of fire and building codes. The fire deaths at colleges and universities, particularly in student housing, is another matter, one that will require code changes to improve fire safety, more educational efforts to increase awareness among owners and occupants, and innovative enforcement.
1. Selections from the U.S. Fire Problem Overview Report, Leading Causes and Other Patterns and Trends, Educational Occupancies, Marty Ahrens, 2001, NFPA
2. FBI's Crime in the U.S. Series
Chip Carson is president of Carson Associates, Inc., in Warrenton, Virginia.
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