Using Summer Break for Reflection

As another school year ends around the country, we will be sending students teachers and staff on a well-deserved summer break. While they are gone, it is a natural time to reflect back on what fire safety challenges we faced during the last year and what we can do to reduce the chances of fire in our schools this next year. This last year was, for the majority of schools across the nation, a very safe fire year.

Most fires that took place  were small in size and were almost always confined to the room of origin. Cooking fires were a common type of small fire encountered by many schools, however, rubbish or trashcan fires were the leading cause of fires in K-12 schools.

As your school year ends, it would be a good time to look at your fire losses for each building in your district and reflect on not only what types of training need to take place to reduce the risk of these fires happening again, but to also look at what went right in regard to training and building performance.

There are many elements built into a facility that are part of the fire safety system for the building. Fire alarm systems, fire sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, fire rated walls and doors, exit signs, emergency lighting, stairwells and corridor systems are all elements that play some role when there is even a small fire in a building. Outside the building, fire lanes, fire hydrants and evacuation points play a key role each time there is a fire event.

Take the time now to review incidents from this last year and look for indications that any of these built-in elements did not perform as expected. Review all the incident reports for fires and fire alarms on campus this last year. Were there reports that the alarm could not be heard or didn’t activate on a small smoke incident? Did the building occupants use extinguishers and the nearest pull stations to report and extinguish the fire?

In addition to incident reports, review work orders for repairs completed or still outstanding for fire dampers, fire doors, alarm systems and sprinkler systems. Is there a correlation between work orders and the locations of incidents? Look for increases in work requests to determine if portions of your life safety systems are nearing the end of their life cycle and schedule replacement of those systems — especially if you can also see from incident reports that there were fire incidents within those areas of the building. Review electrical system work orders.

Are there indications that the distribution system in the building is aging? Can you see an increase in failures or faults in electrical components? In addition, take time to look at water pressures for sprinkler systems. Has there been a drop in pressure from the previous year?

Summer is a busy time for maintenance on every school campus. Time spent looking at fire-prone areas and making sure that maintenance is performed on the built-in fire safety components according to schedule will help reduce future incidents and also minimize the chances of fire growing from incipient stage fires to larger fires spreading to multiple rooms or floors.

This, of course, will also reduce the chances of injury or death from fires in your district buildings as well as reduce the possibility of fire impacting traditional educational programs or the community programs that take place in your school.

See the following NFPA Standards for Requirements for testing and maintenance:
  • NFPA 10 Fire Extinguishers
  • NFPA 25 Fire Sprinkler Systems
  • NFPA 72 Fire Alarm Systems
  • NFPA 80 Fire Doors

Visit www.nfpa.org for a full list of life safety system testing requirements. Also contact our local fire department for any local standards for life safety system testing and maintenance requirements.

Mike Halligan is the associate director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Utah and is responsible for Fire Prevention and Special Events Life Safety. He frequently speaks about performance-based code solutions for campus building projects, is recognized as an expert on residence hall fire safety programs and conducts school fire prevention program audits/strategic planning. He can be reached at 801/585-9327 or at mike.halligan@ehs.utah.edu.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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