Fishers, IN - Maintaining school safety considering recent terrorist events is challenging for everyone as overwhelming social media discussions often evoke emotional debates with good intentions. As such there is a quiet call for fire officials and school systems to remove fire activation pull alarms from schools. The risk is failing to address the multiple threats while trying to solve a single threat to our children's safety. This has the potential to create more harm than good.
National fire and building codes address a broad spectrum of threats including fires, weather emergencies, and hostile situations. The goal for fire chiefs is to remain engaged in this planning process by using a coordinated approach so that unintended consequences can be avoided. We can all "what if" a situation, but the key is to provide as many options as possible, plan for all situations, and train for any situation.
Fishers public safety personnel integrate themselves and their command staff combining fire/ems, law enforcement officials, and school leadership to use blended knowledge to assure appropriate egress and fire protection while working to address the security needs of our schools. It is paramount that this team review procedures, training, and desired changes based on all threats.
In the United States, over the last ten years, we average approximately 5,000 fires in our educational occupancies per calendar year. These may include situations where the fire is controlled by a working fire sprinkler system. In addition, the data from 2015 shows that the fire service responded to over 150,000 fire alarms in educational buildings.
It is recognized that perpetrators of violent crimes, such as school shootings, can use building fire protection systems and other fire safety systems as a tool to enhance the devastation they are seeking. Setting off the fire alarm could give an assailant more targets at a given time. It is clearly recognized that these existing and proposed codes need to be addressed.
The current edition of both the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1 The Fire Code and the International Fire Code (IFC) are the 2018 editions. In many states and other jurisdictions, it takes two, three, or even more years before that edition will be officially adopted. We are reviewing the current code requirements for new and existing school buildings. This is the most up to date resource on dealing with drills, training, and fire alarm systems. It is our belief this is our best resource now for dealing with school safety and fire protection systems.
Many fire chiefs are being asked how to officially and safely remove pull-stations in a school building. Both model codes (NFPA 1 and IFC) have parameters when the building is equipped with automatic fire sprinklers some pull stations can be removed. Remember, we want to keep a means for activation of the alarm system so our students are properly alerted with the threat of a fire.
All fire codes refer to requirements as it relates to frequency of drills and training. It is critical that the training include specific rules for when a building is in lock down and the fire alarm is activated.
An action item for every school to address is once a school is in a lock-down situation, what is their response when a fire alarm is activated? This is a training issue that is not easily identified, except through hyper vigilance of administration and teachers.
We know that many schools are being approached by vendors to install non-code compliant locking devices. Properly installed, listed hardware should be the only option for all schools. Removing door stops, ensuring that locks work, and that closers are operational will not only aid in security but ensure fire safety and egress is still met.
In 2015, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) initiated a School Safety, Codes, and Security Workshop Report. It identified these issues as work items for code organizations, including NFPA. The current standards address workshop report recommendations dealing with door locking and mass notification systems. Cross-training and cooperation between law enforcement, EMS, and fire department personnel is also a major theme of the report. Additionally, the NFPA 3000 Standard for Preparedness and Response to Active Assailant and/or Hostile Events was created to integrate these issues. NFPA’s issued report is a very good resource and contains many excellent recommendations.
We are utilizing the expertise around us in the fire department, building department, state fire marshal’s office, school officials and local law enforcement. We know that there needs to be a delicate balance between fire safety and school safety, and current codes already provide that intent for you. Working together is our priority, and we want to have these current and new resources available.
Steven OrusaFire Chief