Fire protection changes in schools

Changes in codes and in society’s expectations for school safety have driven increased fire protection and security requirements for colleges, universities, and K-12 schools.


This article is peer-reviewed.Learning Objectives:

  • Label the major drivers of new fire protection requirements for schools.
  • Explain the necessary compatibility of fire safety and security.
  • Apply the protection systems involved in a typical fire safety master plan for schools.

Fire safety in educational facilities has dramatically improved over the past century. Even within the past 35 years, the data show significant improvement.

Before attempting to solve a fire safety challenge, it is often useful to define it. Using fire records is one way to do so. In the period 1908 through 1958, there were eight fire incidents each having more than 10 fire fatalities. The worst educational facility incident involved an incredible 294 fatalities in a 1937 gas explosion at Consolidated School in New London, Texas. Since 1959, there has not been a fire incident involving more than 10 fatalities. In the period 2007 to 2011, there was no reported loss of life due to fire in educational facilities.

Figure 1: The McCormick Tribune Campus Center (MTCC) is shown looking north toward downtown Chicago. Within MTCC is the first U.S. building designed by architect Rem Koolhaas along with Chicago architecture firm Holabird & Root. A special challenge was inAs recent as the period 1980 through 1984, NFPA reports that there was an annual average of about 15,000 fires, 233 injuries, and $235 million in property losses in educational facilities. In the 5-yr period 2007 to 2011, the average number of fires per year dropped to 4,760, the average number of injuries per year dropped to 74, and the average annual property loss dropped to $77 million—reductions of 68%, 64%, and 59%, respectively (see Table 1). While dramatic, this reduction is typical of the improved fire safety record for other commercial and institutional facilities in the United States.

Is it time to take a bow? Not yet. Fire safety advocates remain concerned about becoming complacent and remind the public to be ever-vigilant about the risk of fire. It is also likely that there are a few "hidden" dangerous buildings in our midst that must be identified and remedied. Nevertheless, how have these reductions occurred?

A number of factors have converged, including the replacement of an aging school building population with newer facilities, greater use of active fire protection systems mandated by national and local codes, improved building and fire safety enforcement techniques by local government officials, improved awareness of fire safety needs of educational facilities following some serious incidents, improved control of ignition sources, and better fire safety training for building occupants. Responding to the baby boom in the 1950s and '60s, many older, combustible buildings with questionable egress systems were replaced with more modern, noncombustible buildings. The more modern building codes adopted after World War II limited the height of combustible school buildings to one or two stories, and to a modest size in area. Today, larger buildings employ noncombustible construction.

Table 1: This breaks down the annual number of fires in educational facilities from 1980 to 2011. Courtesy: Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc.The influence of the 1973 landmark report, "America Burning," cannot be overstated. This report, prepared under the sponsorship of the federal government, identified the fire problem in the United States and led to a series of changes in the many facets of fire safety. Building and fire codes and standards began to become more stringent, requiring more fire safety features in buildings of all types. Moreover, attitudes shifted toward providing a safer environment where we work, shop, and live—and where our children are educated. Up until the early 1990s, there was generally no requirement for the installation of fire sprinkler protection in educational facilities across the U.S. In the early 1990s, the major model building codes introduced requirements for automatic sprinkler protection in K-12 educational buildings larger than 12,000 sq ft. (College and university buildings are considered "business" buildings by definition in the model codes.) Since then, a number of local jurisdictions have reduced the threshold to zero, requiring automatic sprinklers in educational buildings of any size. Also, since the early 1990s, many new educational facilities have been equipped with automatic fire detection and notification systems, monitored by the fire department; voice communication systems; and, more recently, mass communication systems, dramatically improving fire protection as evidenced by the improved loss records.

Nevertheless, fire safety in educational facilities remains a challenge because of new threats, societal expectations, and changes in building design and construction that pose new fire safety risks. It is also interesting to note that almost half (47%) of fires in educational facilities are intentionally set.

Pre-K through 12th grade

Public school facilities are unique. In many communities, they often serve as meeting facilities, shelters in times of crises, and command centers. The community has a vital interest in them as a taxpayer asset, so property protection and continuity of operations are additional concerns beyond life safety. Code requirements are just one of the drivers of school design affecting the interests of the various stakeholders. Therefore, as an example, designers may wish to consider design criteria beyond the minimum code requirements for flood hazards, wind, and seismic loads. The 2015 edition of the International Building Code (IBC) classifies educational facilities with more than 250 occupants as Risk Category III, representing a "substantial hazard to human life in the event of failure," for use when selecting design loads for these hazards. Stakeholders should consider the goal of being able to use the physical plant following a community disaster, and design accordingly. These considerations also have an effect upon the fire safety of a facility and should be reflected in the master plan when selecting a site and planning a new or substantially renovated facility.

Typically, educational facilities for pre-kindergarten (pre-K), elementary, junior high, and high school involve separate buildings for each age grouping. Educational facilities occupied by children younger than 2.5 yr old are considered day care facilities and have special requirements because such occupants are not considered to be capable of self-preservation in the event of an emergency. (Requirements for day care facilities are not included in this article.)

Facilities for pre-K/elementary, junior high, and high school uses generally have a similar mix of facilities involving classrooms; assembly spaces such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, and theaters; administration areas; storage spaces; laboratories; vocational training shops; facilities for the arts; and, in some cases, parking garages.

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