Protecting our schools

Schools require fire detection and suppression, mass notification systems (MNS), and emergency communication systems (ECS) to protect occupants. Because many schools are becoming multi-use buildings with theaters, computer rooms, and flexible classroom spaces, the fire protection engineer's job has become more complex.


This article is peer-reviewed.Learning Objectives

  • Apply NFPA codes and standards for fire and life safety systems in schools.
  • Evaluate the codes and standards for detection, suppression, mass notification systems (MNS), and emergency communication systems (ECS) in schools.
  • Survey the various approaches for designing safe schools.

The hallways in this school include compartmentation for fire protection purposes. All graphics courtesy: Koffel AssociatesDesigning an educational occupancy today involves considering threats and vulnerabilities that are not typically covered by modern building and fire codes. Here, we will highlight some of these considerations and how the design team needs to work with school system personnel and other professionals to identify and address these modern-day threats. It also should be recognized that many educational facilities serve other purposes within a community including being used for worship services, public meetings, and entertainment activities beyond just performance by the students.

Fire protection, security, and emergency planning are critical in today's schools. Most modern building codes in the United States require that at least portions of new educational occupancies be protected with an automatic sprinkler system. Depending on the edition of codes being used, the trigger for the sprinkler requirement typically will be 12,000 sq ft of fire area. In some cases, it is possible to subdivide the building with fire barriers in lieu of protecting the building with an automatic sprinkler system. It also should be noted that other areas of the facility, such as the assembly occupancies, may also require automatic sprinkler protection depending on the occupant load.

The sprinkler threshold for automatic-sprinkler-system protection dates back to the legacy building codes in the U.S. The debate that occurred during the code hearings that resulted in the current requirements took a different approach than many of the other debates that resulted in a requirement for automatic sprinkler protection. While opponents recognized that there were some historical multiple-death fires in schools, the more recent fire experience was cited as being much better and, therefore, sprinkler protection was not required. Proponents cited the need to limit the area of unsprinklered compartments to an area that could be controlled by the fire department. In addition, proponents cited the impact on property damage, the impact on the community when a school facility is damaged, and the fact that most areas where our children will be (residential, assembly, mercantile) are often required to be protected with sprinklers—therefore, it only makes sense that when our children are in school that they would be protected as well.

While manual fire alarm systems have historically been required in educational occupancies, there was a time when at least the Uniform Building Code required automatic detection in educational occupancies as well. While common in some other countries, current U.S. building codes do not tend to require automatic detection in new educational occupancies. There may be some specific areas where automatic detection will be provided due to protecting unique hazards (such as data-processing equipment). However, the approach in the U.S. seems to be based upon a philosophy that while the building is occupied, it is by occupants who are awake and alert and capable of prompt detection of a fire. It also should be noted that codes typically permit the omission of manual fire alarm boxes if the building is protected throughout with an automatic sprinkler system.

In the past, the discussions regarding fire alarm systems in educational occupancies tended to focus on whether the alarm system could be used for other purposes such as class changes and public address. Current codes and standards address these issues and will permit a fire alarm system to be used for other, supplemental purposes provided the operation of the system as a fire alarm system is not adversely impacted. However, the design issues being faced today go far beyond these historical discussions.

Hallways include fire detection systems and notification systems so that students can be efficiently evacuated in an emergency. Courtesy: Koffel AssociatesFire history

In September 2013, NFPA published the report entitled "Structure Fires in Educational Properties," which contained a data analysis of the fire experience over the period ranging from 2007 to 2011. For facilities reported as being elementary through high school, the report documents an annual average of 3,380 fires (62% in middle and high schools), 67 civilian injuries (76% in middle and high schools), and $60 million direct property damage (63% in middle and high schools). More than half of the fires occurred between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., with most of the fires occurring during the school week (Monday through Friday) and the traditional school year (September through May). Approximately half the fires were intentionally set and approximately one-quarter were started by cooking equipment. Approximately one-third of the fires started in areas defined as "lavatory, bathroom, locker room, or check room."

Most of the fires were classified as confined, most likely due in part to the fact that half of the fires occurred when the building was occupied. However, the 8% of fires that were not confined to the room or origin resulted in 75% of direct property damage. Other NFPA reports highlight the difference in direct property damage in buildings protected with an automatic sprinkler system as compared with buildings that are not protected with an automatic sprinkler system.

Regardless of the code requirements and recognizing the arguments made to support the sprinkler requirement, fire protection engineers involved in a project in which the school is not going to be protected with an automatic sprinkler system might want to perform a risk assessment as to whether the school system believes an acceptable level of risk exists without some additional protection.

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