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Fire Safety in Schools


These types of spaces must follow a series of fire safety recommendations in order to safeguard the children, young people and staff who occupy them.

By Jaime A. Moncada*

The school, in our history, goes back to ancient Greece (1). In our Latin American countries, although there is a large number and diversity of private schools, public schools have been one of the pillars of our society.

Being public entities, they tend to be buildings with a very basic infrastructure, where traditionally the issue of human safety and fire protection has been relegated to the background. However, let's put that reality aside, and while I don't think it would be appropriate to suggest implementing everything that the NFPA policy establishes, I do think that most schools could implement the recommendations listed below, even partially.

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Definition of an Educational Occupation
Educational occupations include public, private, parochial schools or colleges, preschool academies, kindergartens, and other facilities whose purpose is primarily educational. They include pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, but exclude universities and post-secondary institutions. They also exclude daycares (such as ABC Daycare in Hermosillo, Mexico, where 49 children lost their lives on June 5, 2009), which have even more restrictive requirements than educational occupations.

According to NFPA codes, educational occupations are generally defined as places where six or more students are present for formal instruction for more than four hours per day and more than 12 hours per week, until the senior grade of high school.

Risks in a school
School fires can start in a variety of places. Statistical data collected by NFPA (2) indicate that the main source areas tend to be in bathrooms or locker rooms where garbage, magazines, papers, and other waste products are often the first items to catch fire.

Nearly half of the fires in educational occupations were intentionally set, often to disrupt classes, as well as fires in kitchens and followed by children playing with fire. Children who have died in school fires in recent years have been largely limited to arson, started by children acting individually or in groups, who are on school premises without permission after school hours (3).

Occupants of educational occupations vary in their ability to cope with an emergency condition (4), depending on their age, mental and physical condition, and the constructive characteristics of the facility. For example, children younger than 3rd graders require special consideration because of their limited ability to descend stairs or evacuate effectively in an emergency.

Because there is a chance for younger children to be run over by older students on stairs, most modern codes require preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade students to be located on the exit discharge level to facilitate their evacuation. Elementary 2nd graders are generally limited to a level above evacuation level in recognition of their limited ability to move.

Single-story schools, in which each classroom has a direct exit to the outside, represent the most conservative design for the human safety of students. However, economic constraints, site constraints, or programmatic requirements often dictate other design considerations.

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Additionally, in NFPA 101, the minimum hallway width requirement of 1.83 m is based on expected student behavior. The wider-than-normal width of the hallway accommodates students exiting classrooms and forming parallel rows to move down the hallway.

Fire Protection Systems
In general, schools require a manual fire alarm system at a minimum. Due to vandalism, fire alarm systems have sometimes been improperly turned off or disabled to prevent malicious or false alarms from disrupting the learning process.

Recent changes to NFPA 101 allow for the bypassing of manual fire alarm buttons if the building is protected at all times by an approved automatic fire detection system or a supervised automatic sprinkler system, and in both cases there is a central location with continuous personnel where an evacuation signal can be manually activated.

Each new educational occupancy building that has more than 93 m2 of built area must be protected at all times by a supervised automatic sprinkler system. Every part of any educational occupancy building, new or existing, located below the outlet discharge level, must also be protected by a supervised automatic sprinkler system.

Fire Drills
Educational occupancy operators should develop emergency plans in conjunction with the local fire department. Emergency plans should take into account events other than fires. As part of these plans, fire drills are critical to achieving adequate occupant response during an emergency. Fire drills should include the assignment of more mature staff or students to the following roles:

* Keep doors open on the line of march to the outside;
* Close doors, when necessary, to prevent the spread of fire or smoke;
* Register bathrooms or other ancillary rooms;
* Properly account for all occupants; and
* Achieve a quick, calm, and orderly evacuation of the building or relocation to designated shelter areas.

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During a fire drill, occupants should not be allowed to retrieve their clothing or backpacks after the alarm sounds, because of the dangers of tripping over dragged clothing and the confusion that would result in the formation of lines. The students' responsibility is to simply evacuate. Fire drills should be conducted no less than once a month. An additional fire drill should be conducted at the beginning of the school year.

Everyone within the building should participate in such drills, as this ensures that all staff and students understand the evacuation procedure during a fire. Drills must be conducted without notice and at different times of the day, during class change, when the school is in general assembly, and during recess or gym periods.

As drills simulate the actual condition of a fire, fire alarm signaling devices must be used so that occupants recognize the signal and respond appropriately. A separate and distinct "return" sign should be developed to prevent premature return to the building. Repetitive training in fire drills will also benefit the student later in life or when they are within another type of occupation.

Finally, I would like to briefly mention universities, about which I have already written in this journal. In these cases, it is generally presumed that the occupants of these uses are capable, due to their age, of adult behavior, although many university students do not demonstrate it all the time. The occupants of a university, generally speaking, are characterized by being awake, alert, and familiar with their surroundings.

Although the prevailing risk is not as critical as it would be in a school or daycare center, the criteria of life safety and fire protection must be taken seriously. In this sense, the NFPA standard has defined that the life safety and fire protection requirements used for this type of building are the same as those that would be used in an office. In fact, colleges are categorized as a Business Occupation.

(1) History of Education in Antiquity. Marrou, Henry-Iréneé. 1985. p. 28-31.
(2) Structure Fires in Schools, Cambel, Richard. NFPA, September 2020.
(3) NFPA 101 Handbook, 2024 Edition, Chapter 14 & 15 Commentary.
(4) Fire Protection Handbook, NFPA. 21st Edition. 2023.

Jaime A. Moncada, PE is a principal at International Fire Safety Consulting (IFSC), a fire protection engineering consulting firm based in Washington, DC. and with offices in Latin America. He is a fire protection engineer graduated from the University of Maryland, co-editor of the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, Vice President of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) and directs NFPA's professional development programs in Latin America. Mr. Moncada's email address is [email protected].

Duván Chaverra Agudelo
Author: Duván Chaverra Agudelo
Jefe Editorial en Latin Press, Inc,.
Comunicador Social y Periodista con experiencia de más de 16 años en medios de comunicación. Apasionado por la tecnología y por esta industria. [email protected]

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