Fire & Life Safety

Fire Sprinkler Systems

In educational occupancies, damages from fires in buildings with fire sprinkler systems is 62 percent lower than it is in facilities without wet pipe sprinkler systems. Think about your school buildings, when were they built, a brief review of state averages suggests that the average school still being used on many locations was built in the 1950’s — long before modern day fire code regulations.

If your school district has a large number of older facilities, what is your plan for integrating wet pipe sprinkler systems? Do you have a strategy to prioritize installation of sprinklers into these buildings? The next time you are at a conference, ask your peers who have experienced a school fire how they responded to the media when asked about why they didn’t have sprinklers — you will hear responses similar to these:

“They weren’t required when the school was built.” “They are expensive to retrofit into an existing building.”

Now, ask them if they have retrofitted their buildings with the latest technology for Internet access? Most will smile and say yes and quote:

“We have high rates of speed to stream data to the classroom,” or “The children, teachers and community expect the best technology.”

We all agree. Technology is necessary in the classroom. There is universal support for this investment. There is also universal support for fire safety. Student safety is paramount. This represents an opportunity for those school districts that are struggling to retrofit fire sprinklers into their buildings. We can change the “sales pitch” for this topic.

School districts need a solid strategic plan for retrofitting fire sprinklers. Most districts I’ve talked to don’t currently have a plan. Facilities staff must work with safety consultants to prioritize where the first sprinkler head should go and where the last one should be installed. There should be a focus on placing sprinkler systems where there is the greatest risk — teaching facilities before office buildings, classrooms with cooking operations before outlying support facilities.

For many districts, the first step will be the creation of a guidance document that spells out policy and procedures for fire suppression systems. School districts that have retrofitted systems have a policy that specifically states that all facilities will be protected by automatic fire sprinkler systems. Districts that rely on volunteer fire departments are more likely to adopt this policy statement in recognition of the longer response time for volunteer departments. If your school system is protected by a volunteer fire department, this may be a “sales tool” you can use to help gain support for sprinkler retrofits.

The local community is in general very silent on this topic — until there is a fire. They assume the buildings they send their children to each day are safe from the effects of fire. The public trusts that the local school already has all the fire safety features. There is an expectation that because they see new carpet, paint, light fixtures and technology, that the necessary fire safety components are also up to modern day fire codes and standards. A review of many news articles will show this silent assumption changes to outrage once a fire destroys a local school building.

If there are injuries to students or emergency responders this outrage grows exponentially. If the local community also has to pass a bond to cover the costs of a new building, there will be additional outrage from the fact that the financial impact could have been reduced if a funding package for a sprinkler retrofit program was in place. Considering the fact that a new high school for 1500 students can cost roughly $55 million, a sprinkler retrofit project that costs $1.5 million will be a lot easier to “sell to the community” (there is the assumption that there are not many other issues with the facility).

When do you start the retrofit process? For many districts the process starts only after a fire. Surrounding communities start the discussion after the fire. There is no need to wait for an event to push the start of the conversation. There are 4,000 school fire events a year — school fires were reported in every state last year. Use this statistic to start the conversation and bring a team of internal and external stakeholders together now to identify a fire sprinkler retrofit strategy for your schools.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

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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