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The importance of planning for fires in educational occupancies
NFPA Journal, September/October 2010
Major fires in educational occupancies are rare — accounting for fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. fires — but fires occurring during school hours present a serious threat to life safety. Nearly every fire district includes one or more educational occupancies, and the potential for a large loss-of-life fire necessitates pre-incident planning with an emphasis on life safety tactics.
Adequate planning for a school involves more than providing a set of drawings with a brief description of the property. Schools are occupied at times other than normal school hours, for example, and it is essential that plans include the time and location of extracurricular and after-hours activities. The 1923 Cleveland School fire in Beulah, South Carolina, killed 77 people at a commencement play held in the evening. As part of this planning, fire department members should regularly observe and evaluate fire drills, noting the efficiency of the evacuation and accountability process. Observing a school fire drill provides invaluable training for firefighters who should know the prearranged locations for evacuated students and the school contact person, who should also be part of the plan.
An evaluation of the evacuation plan should include determining if the evacuation is consistent with fire department operations, since some evacuation plans may inadvertently call for students to be placed in areas that hinder fire department response or operations. The school contact person should meet the fire department in a pre-determined safe location along the route of normal fire apparatus access to the property. The accountability process used during school fire drills should provide the incident commander with the evacuation status, as well as the possible location of people who are missing when a fire occurs during school hours. Life safety is the number-one priority at every fire, and when a school fire occurs during periods of maximum occupancy, it is critically important to account for everyone.
An adequate plan will also help determine the best search-and-rescue method, since building design can vary greatly. Many modern schools are single-story structures with direct access to the outside from every room, while older schools are often multi-story with limited egress. Some school districts use trailers as temporary classrooms. Each of these buildings requires a different search-and-rescue approach, and probable tactics can and should be known in advance.
Planning should include calculating rate of flow. Classrooms typically have average fire loading and are limited in size; most will be within the capabilities of the fire department’s standard, pre-connected hose lines. Rate of flow should be calculated for any large undivided areas such as larger classrooms, gymnasiums, auditoriums, and libraries. A common problem in school buildings is improper storage under stairwells and in corridors, which can greatly increase the fuel load and the threat to life safety. Knowledge of this kind of storage can help a fire department calculate the proper rate of flow. It can also help a fire department work with a school to minimize such hazards.
Large loss-of-life fires are not representative of all school fires — in the history of the United States, four school fires have killed 50 or more people, and in the last 40 years, three school fires have killed three or more people — but they often serve to highlight potential problems present in many schools. The investigation of the 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago, which killed 92 students and three nuns, found open stairwells, blocked doors, combustible floor and ceiling materials, a fire alarm system that was not connected to the fire department, and no automatic sprinkler system.
Do any or all of these defects exist in the schools your fire department protects?
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555.