The Day the High School Burned
What would you do if fire claimed your town’s high school? A North Carolina community learns a hard lesson about fire safety in its schools and about the need for disaster recovery planning.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
By Lisa Nadile
On the afternoon of November 1, 2006, students at Eastern Guilford High School in Gibsonville, North Carolina, should have been watching the clock, waiting for the school day to end.
The fire burned through the ceiling of a classroom into the roof system, eventually causing large portions of the roof assembly to collapse into the building. (Photos: From Top, Joseph Rodriguez, Lynn Hey, and Jerry Wolford/News & Record)
Making the argument
for a sprinkler retrofit
The sprinkler system for the new Eastern Guilford High School cost a little more than $2 per square foot.
EDUCATIONAL STRUCTURE FIRES BY THE NUMBERS
According to data compiled by NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 6,650 educational property structure fires from 2003 to 2006.
Those fires injured an annual average of 88 civilians and caused $90 million in direct property damage.*
Automatic suppression systems were installed in 34 percent of these structure fires; 88 percent of those systems were sprinklers.
In these fires, 93 percent of the systems operated when the fire was large enough to activate them. When the systems failed, 48 percent failed because the system was shut off and 33 percent failed when manual intervention defeated the system.
Of the estimated 6,650 annual educational property structure fires, 2,820, or 42 percent, occurred in high schools.
*The 2006 Eastern Guilford High School fire was not reported by the fire department to the U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Incident Reporting System or to NFPA’s annual fire department experience survey, and data from it are not included in these statistics.
Fires in high schools resulted in annual averages of 54 civilian injuries and $34.6 million in direct property damage.
The leading causes of fires in high schools were contained trash fires or cooking equipment. Trash was the item most frequently first ignited.
The areas of origin for these fires were contained trash areas, kitchen or cooking areas, and bathrooms. Of these high school fires, 6 percent extended beyond the room of origin.
Twenty-one percent of fires in high schools were intentionally set.
Peak times for high school fires were weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Instead, they were evacuating the school as fire spread through the building’s roof, causing ceilings to collapse into the rooms below. Thick smoke churned ominously into the sky as the fire grew.
The fire department in the neighboring community of Whitsett was located just five miles (eight kilometers) away and arrived in minutes, but the speed of the fire and the manner in which it spread made saving the school impossible. All students and staff safely escaped and much of the school’s contents were salvageable, but the damage had been done. The school, which Alan Purdue, Guilford County Emergency Services chief, says was valued at $41 million, was a total loss. Guilford County Schools administrators say they recovered $17 million in insurance payments.
The fire revealed two things: the school did not have adequate fire protection, and there were significant holes in the community’s education emergency management preparedness.
For starters, the school, which was built in 1974 under North Carolina’s 1968 Building Code, had no sprinkler or smoke detection systems. It also became clear that disaster recovery planning was all but nonexistent; when the school board met that night, it had no idea where Eastern Guilford’s 1,068 students would attend school the next day.
While rare, the complete loss of an educational property of this size does happen. The inadequately protected Eastern Guilford High School was similar to thousands of other high schools nationwide operating today. According to NFPA’s 2007 Structural Fires in Educational Properties report, the average annual loss per fire in which there was no automatic suppression system present from 2002 to 2004 was $38,600. When a sprinkler system was present, the average loss was $12,400.
And the financial impact of losing—and replacing—a large school is becoming even greater as more states cut education budgets. In North Carolina, the general assembly is considering cutting over $1 billion dollars from health and human services and public education across the state, according to the Associated Press.
Such pressures intensify the need for emergency planning and all that such planning entails, says Curtis Varone, director of Public Fire Protection for NFPA.
“Business continuity planning is not just for the private sector,” he says. “The public sector—schools, fire departments, police departments, local government—all must be aware of the risks in their area.”
Varone suggests using NFPA 1600®, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, as a guide in planning for both disasters and disaster recovery. As its name suggests, this standard establishes criteria for assessing existing disaster and emergency management and business continuity programs and for developing, implementing, and maintaining new programs. NFPA 1600 applies to public-sector and not-for-profit organizations, as well as private-sector entities.
The fire at Eastern Guilford High School woke the Gibsonville community to the risks, and it rebuilt the school using the lessons learned. The new high school features up-to-date fire alarm and sprinkler systems, as well as a host of other systems and construction features that make it far safer than the school that burned.
“The most significant change is that we are now sprinklering almost every building that we build. That in and of itself would have, in all probability, prevented [much of this fire’s destruction],” says Joe Hill, Guilford County Schools’ facilities consultant.
Another addition to the school’s infrastructure seems to be having a cooling effect on the number of people starting fires.
“In a number of our high schools, we are installing security cameras,” says Hill. “It’s an unfortunate reality that trash can fires are a fairly common occurrence in schools, particularly high schools. I think [cameras have] been somewhat of a deterrent, even with those pranksters who perhaps are thinking of starting a fire.”
A “monumental” loss
While the incident is still under investigation, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes told the local press that the fire was deliberately set in the storage closet of a chemistry classroom. Fire officials say the blaze burned up through the ceiling tiles into the void between the classroom’s ceiling and the underside of the building’s roof, then spread into the roof system, a sandwich of metal, asphalt, insulation material, and rubber membrane, until the drop ceilings beneath the assembly began to collapse. Large portions of the roof assembly were already involved by the time firefighters arrived.
“It was the construction of the school and the lack of sprinklers that were the largest contributing factors” to the fire, says Chief Billy Combs of the Whitsett Fire Department, which was the first on the scene.
The school had a local fire alarm system that sounded only at the school, not at a central monitoring station, so the emergency services didn’t know of the fire until they received a phone call from the school’s administrative offices. Purdue says the fire had a significant head start before it was reported.
“People saw smoke, and students in the adjacent room [to the chemistry lab] felt the room getting hotter,” he says. “We had reports that, during evacuation, the stairwell adjacent to the lab was inaccessible due to heat and flame.”
When firefighters arrived, they were unable to get water to the seat of the fire, which was spreading inside the roof assembly. “The school had placed two modular buildings on the west side of the building,” Combs says. “For this fire, the location of those buildings prevented us from placing a ladder truck where we needed to.” As the fire burned, massive sections of the roof assembly began to collapse into the building.
Damage to the building was extensive, and much of the classroom contents were water-damaged. “They actually were able to salvage a lot of the significant memorabilia associated with the school,” Purdue says, “the trophies and some photographs and plaques and things associated with the history of the school. We were able to get out some band instruments.”
For Guilford County, the impact of a $41 million loss was “monumental,” Purdue says. A critical piece of infrastructure in an already overcrowded school system was suddenly gone. Add to that the psychological impact on the students of suddenly losing important rituals such as proms and sports events, says Purdue, and the event took on the dimensions of a community disaster.
The school system scrambled to address the most immediate problem: where to send displaced students. Two days after the fire, Guilford County Schools announced that the high school’s juniors and seniors would attend classes at a nearby community college and that freshmen and sophomores would start classes at the former North Carolina School for the Deaf. It was a quick solution, and one that caused angst in the community, as parents and students worried about dividing the student body.
The school board then announced a plan to install mobile, modular buildings that would function as classrooms at the site of the old school by the start of the 2007–2008 school year. Ten units were leased for $50,000 per month. Until they arrived, students attended classes at the secondary sites for the remainder of the 2006–2007 school year. The Class of 2007 graduated on schedule.
At an open house in August 2007, students and parents visited their new substitute school, dubbed the “pod village,” where they would spend the next two years. While happy to be back together as a community and to share their school spirit, the kids still struggled to keep up with their peers at other high schools, academically as well as in sports and other extracurricular activities.
The rebuilding of Eastern Guilford High began in July 2007 on the site of the old school, which had been demolished five months earlier. The new $61 million school includes two gymnasiums, a cafeteria with outdoor seating, a central atrium, a cybercafe, a career center, and a library stocked with 10,000 new books. Eastern Guilford reopened in April of this year.
In sharp contrast to its predecessor, the new 270,000-square-foot (25,084-square-meter) building also features state-of-the-art fire protection systems in compliance with the 2006 North Carolina Building Code, which requires full fire alarm and sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, HVAC smoke detection, central station monitoring, fire-rated stairwells, fire protection of steel supports, emergency lights, hydrants, and more, says Purdue. Every classroom is equipped with horns and strobes.
“One important aspect we were able to design as part of this system was greatly improved fire department access, increasing the places where we could put apparatus,” Purdue says, “whereas on the old school we had severe limitations...which affected our ability to provide suppression units for the fire.”
While the students and faculty love the new school’s amenities, Combs likes another new feature best. “It’s really nice to look up to the ceiling and see those little sprinkler heads,” he says.
Lisa Nadile is associate editor of NFPA Journal.
Making the argument for a sprinkler retrofit
The sprinkler system for the new Eastern Guilford High School cost $556,500, according to Alan Purdue, Guilford County Emergency Services chief. The new school covers about 270,000 square feet (25,084 square meters), bringing the cost of the system to a little more than $2 per square foot. “Even if you did a retrofit and doubled that cost as a ballpark figure, it’s far cheaper than replacing the whole building,” says Purdue.
He’s quick to add that, in retrospect, it would have been worth it to retrofit the old school, and he urges other school systems to consider taking that step. “Not everyone builds a new school every day, but identifying the funding for a retrofit is certainly something that every fire district ought to accomplish through working with their fire system,” Purdue says.
Unfortunately, cash-strapped school boards tend to shy away from the cost of retrofits, says Gary Keith, NFPA’s vice-president of Field Operations.
“We often hear of a push-back on sprinklers,” he says. “While the life safety concerns are priority one, the property loss aspect can be considerable, and that is often not taken into consideration.”
Cost can be managed by retrofitting in phases, Purdue says. “We did it that way at a high school nearby that was doing some renovations,” he says. “We did some retrofitting where construction was taking place, in corridors and hallways, so later they can do the remainder of the building.”
When retrofitting, it’s important to plan a system maintenance process immediately, Purdue says. The schools that were retrofitted worked with the school system to understand the aspects of maintaining the fire protection system required by NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. They also complied with NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, and NFPA 13®, Installation of Sprinkler Systems®.
For a retrofit or a new system, success again relies on pre-fire planning. A retrofit can go beyond sprinkler installation and look at building design or plans for expansion. For example, the fire department may have accessibility concerns and may have suggestions for connection locations, water pressure requirements, how much hose they’ll use, and other considerations.
— Lisa Nadile