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.
By Carl F. Baldassarra, PE, FSFPE, Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., Northbroo October 21, 2015

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.

There are two basic options in dealing with mixed-use buildings. The various uses may be separated by fire-resistant construction, which is intended to protect occupants from occupancies that may be considered a higher risk. For example, occupants in an assembly use such as a theater that may have a higher density of occupants and low-ambient light are considered to be at risk from the storage areas in another part of the school building. Therefore, a rated separation is required to protect those at risk. The IBC requires the rated separation to be at least 2 hr in unsprinklered buildings and 1 hr in sprinklered buildings, the difference owing to the recognition that automatic sprinkler protection will reduce the intensity and duration of an exposing fire.

The second option is often called the "non-separated uses" option, which allows no physical barrier between the mixed uses, provided that the entire building is designed to the most restrictive provisions for type of construction and protective features that would apply individually to the uses. For example, if the assembly space would require Type IB construction because of the combined height and area of the building and the educational use would have allowed Type IIA when considering its combined height and area, the building would be allowed to be built without occupancy separations if entirely of Type IB construction. This latter option is often selected because of the flexibility provided in design and the ability desired by many school designers to allow the free flow of people and visual communication within the building.

A typical fire protection program for a pre-K through 12th-grade facility will include:

  • Site selection to minimize the effects of natural hazards and to consider available water supplies for firefighting and automatic suppression systems
  • Noncombustible construction
  • A robust means of egress system
  • Fire-rated barriers (or detached buildings) for rooms storing hazardous materials
  • Automatic fire sprinklers throughout the facility
  • A fire detection and alarm system that monitors sprinkler waterflow and smoke detectors in high-value equipment areas
  • A coordinated security system, including cameras that provide surveillance in normally unoccupied public areas that can serve as a deterrent to incendiary acts.

More specifically, considerations for site selection should be undertaken before planning for a new school facility or before investing substantial sums of money into a renovation or expansion of an existing facility. This review should include potential fire exposure from adjacent properties to reduce the risk of a fire or explosion affecting the educational facility, potential threats from the urban-wildland interface where facilities can be exposed to wildland fires, the ability to access the site by the local fire department under various weather and traffic scenarios, and the availability of sufficient quantity and pressure of water for manual firefighting as well as for the proposed fire protection systems.

The use of noncombustible construction for educational facilities is encouraged by national codes like the IBC and NFPA 101: Life Safety Code. The IBC restricts the basic allowable height and area of a wood frame (Type V-B) educational building to one story and 9,500 sq ft, and to three stories and 23,500 sq ft for a Type III-A (masonry joist) constructed building. (In all of the above cases, certain additional increases are allowed for automatic sprinkler protection and site considerations.) These criteria can be suitable for smaller facilities. Even with automatic sprinkler protection, combustible construction poses a property loss risk due to fire because of fires that may start in unprotected concealed spaces or outside of the building, such as from a lightning strike to the roof of the building. Noncombustible construction is required for larger facilities, such as buildings greater than four stories or larger than 50,000 sq ft, based upon the perceived risk.

Perlstein Hall, at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), was designed by Mies van der Rohe and built in 1945. It includes classrooms, an auditorium, and administrative offices. Courtesy: Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. and IIT

Furthermore, while NFPA 101 does not have specific construction requirements applicable to educational facilities, it limits rooms normally occupied by preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade students to the level of exit discharge (typically grade level) of the building, and second-grade students to not more than one floor above the level of exit discharge. This is in recognition of the limited mobility of the younger students and the anticipated longer associated egress times.

A robust design for the means of egress of educational facilities is one of the fundamental principles of providing a reasonable level of fire safety. A well-designed means of egress system for an educational facility will include an adequate number, size, and location of the means of egress. A minimum of two exits should be provided for each story, with up to four exits depending upon the number of occupants served. The exits must have aggregate widths to meet the occupant loads of the spaces served, and they must be arranged so that all portions of the building are within the maximum allowable travel distance to an exit. Per NFPA 101, all rooms larger than 1,000 sq ft, or with an occupant load of more than 50 persons, must have at least two exit access doors.

Specialty fire suppression systems

Even when using the non-separated uses option, certain rooms will require fire-rated separations so as to reduce the exposure to the remainder of the educational facility. A typical fire protection program will include criteria that require fire separations for storage rooms greater than 100 sq ft, boiler rooms, transformer rooms, and the like.

Educational facilities may include an atrium as an architectural feature. Because this vertical opening poses a risk of fire and smoke spread to multiple floors, an assessment must be made to determine compensatory protection features. The usual solutions for an atrium design include automatic sprinkler protection throughout the building, and a smoke exhaust system, based upon an engineering analysis of the specific geometry and expected hazards.

Automatic sprinkler systems for educational facilities have recently become "mainstream" systems in a basic fire protection program. This is intended to provide both a high degree of life safety for building occupants and property protection for the stakeholders. A new installation of automatic sprinkler protection will likely include quick-response sprinkler technology that initiates faster than traditional sprinklers, keeping the fire sizes small and helping to maintain a tenable environment to allow safe egress for building occupants. Wet systems are the sprinkler systems of choice because of their simplicity and reliability. Dry systems are employed, when necessary, for areas of the building subject to freezing. In some cases, pre-action systems are used for high-value areas of the building, such as computer laboratories, information technology (IT) network equipment rooms, and communication equipment rooms. Those systems have normally dry piping that is not wet until a valve is activated by a separate, electronic detection system, usually with smoke detectors.

Elementary and high schools generally have a 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,

Including automatic sprinkler protection in the building construction allows larger areas and increased heights over the maximum basic areas and heights for unsprinklered buildings, additional exit capacity for stairways and doors, and longer exit travel distances; meaning, in some cases, that a third of fourth exit is not required. Sprinkler systems should be electronically monitored by an offsite alarm-receiving facility for automatic fire alarms resulting from sprinkler waterflow switches, plus smoke and heat detectors. Sprinkler systems also should be monitored for conditions that could impair their performance, such as closed valves, loss of power or fuel to fire pumps, freezing temperatures in riser rooms, etc. Both fire alarm and supervisory alarm conditions are required to be monitored at an offsite location by the IBC.

Both the IBC and NFPA 101 do not require manual alarm stations in sprinklered buildings. This is partly in recognition that manual stations can be a source of unwanted alarms initiated by pranksters and others with ill intent. More than half (53%) of K-12 and university fire protection professionals rated false alarms as one of their top fire safety challenges. In some cases, school administrators have opted to provide a single manual-alarm station in the office, under adult supervision, to allow for notification of the building occupants and fire department of a fire condition prior to an automatic detection means.

Fire detection and alarm systems are important elements of an effective fire safety master plan for educational facilities. In addition to detecting sprinkler operation by means of flow switches and smoke by means of smoke detectors, they automatically notify both building occupants and the fire department of a fire emergency early in the genesis of a fire, and without relying upon human intervention. The IBC and NFPA 101 require, for buildings with more than 100 occupants, that occupant notification be accomplished by means of a voice alarm communication system rather than via bells or horns. This is an important feature that allows a responsible person to provide specific instructions tailored to the actual event. It is particularly useful to provide emergency instructions during non-fire events such as severe weather or a security threat. The system can also be used for nonemergency functions. An occupant notification system in educational facilities is also an important "human factors" element, like fire drills, which are required to be conducted on a regular basis. For large or multibuilding facilities, a "mass notification" system should be considered.

Colleges and universities

The typical college campus has numerous types of building construction, with uses ranging from large assembly to classrooms to dormitories, and various ages of buildings that pose many of the same challenges found in a small town. Nevertheless, for colleges and universities, the same basic fire protection principles apply: a site risk assessment, noncombustible construction, fire-rated barriers (or detached buildings) for rooms storing hazardous materials or employing hazardous operations, a robust egress system, automatic sprinkler protection, a fire-detection and alarm system that monitors sprinkler waterflow, smoke detectors in high-value equipment areas, transmission of alarms to an offsite monitoring agency or a campus security/fire monitoring facility, and a coordinated security system.

College campuses, like this one, must outline specific policies and procedures within their annual security reports, including those related to disseminating timely warnings and emergency notifications, options for survivors of sexual assault, domestic viMany of the features comprising an effective fire protection program are the same as those reported for pre-K through 12th-grade facilities. Clearly, the number and magnitude of buildings on a college campus are larger than found in the pre-K through high school settings. College and university classroom buildings are treated as "business" (office) buildings by the IBC and NFPA 101. Therefore, in general, the construction requirements are not as stringent as those for pre-K through 12th-grade facilities. Other facilities on campus may include large assembly venues, dormitories, retail facilities, high-rise buildings, and industrial-scale laboratories and pilot production facilities, which present different challenges from the pre-K through 12th-grade environment.

Because of the large populations and multiple buildings, consideration should be given to providing a mass communication system for college and university campuses. A mass notification system uses various occupant-notification techniques—from cell phones to video screens, and including a building’s fire alarm system—to alert building occupants and subscribers to various emergency conditions, such as fire, severe weather, bomb threat, security threat, etc. NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code provides detailed requirements for the design and installation of such systems. The systems are installed pursuant to a site-wide risk assessment and are custom-designed for the facility. Mass notification systems are not mandated by codes at this time.

Security considerations

Fire safety in educational facilities is a component of the larger topic of school safety. Today, the security of educational facilities—from pre-K through college—is a large concern because of recent school shootings and other related incidents reported in the media. Some clients view school security as a greater risk to the safety of students than from the threat of fire, and one cannot argue with the data.

The Jeanne Clery Act is a law passed in 1990 that requires all colleges and universities that receive federal funding to share information about efforts to improve campus safety as well as inform the public of crime on or around campus. Colleges and universities must outline specific policies and procedures within their annual security reports, including those related to disseminating timely warnings and emergency notifications, options for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, and campus crime reporting processes. Compliance with the act has caused many colleges and universities to implement programs that provide increased security measures.

A valid concern is the potential conflict between building security and fire safety. Fire safety generally relies upon the prompt movement of people within educational facilities to and through the exits with a minimum number of encumbrances. Security strategy often employs barriers to entry, "emergency only" exit doors, controlled access within the building, and other means to limit unauthorized persons from accessing and moving throughout the building. Certainly, the security of educational facilities is a necessary component of providing for the safety of students, teachers, staff, and guests, and neither security nor fire safety should be compromised in developing a comprehensive fire safety and security strategy for educational facilities.

Some security advocates are concerned that automatic fire alarm systems that automatically signal students and faculty to evacuate a building might be activated to purposely drive occupants outside of the protective envelope of the building and into harm’s way. Consideration has been given to employing a verification-type system that allows time for authorized staff to verify an emergency condition before the general alarm is activated. A comprehensive strategy in implementing such a policy should consider the design of the building, its various protection features, and the specific risk factors associated with the facility.

The code-enforcement community that develops building, fire, and other model codes has responded to the increase in school security threats. A change proposed for the 2018 edition of the IBC would have mandated that classroom doors in kindergarten through 12th-grade facilities be able to be locked from within the classroom, provided certain criteria were followed. This proposed change was to apply to both new and existing schools. As a result of public hearings earlier this year, however, the proposed change was revised so as not to be mandatory. Instead, it provides criteria for safely doing so if it is deemed desirable by local schools. This proposal will again be the subject of further hearings and a final vote by the International Code Council (publishers of the IBC) membership in October.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) publishes a guide in its risk management series called "Primer to Design Safe School Projects in Case of Terror Attacks." This publication includes guidelines for the security of schools, including minimizing the number of building entrances, while also advocating compliance with nationally recognized codes. Again, safety and security need not be compromised if an appropriate risk assessment is employed by design professionals.


Carl F. Baldassarra is a principal at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. His expertise is based on more than 40 years as a licensed fire protection engineer and on managing a large number of fire safety and security projects involving educational facilities.

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