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Fire Sprinklers For Schools

There are more than 8,000 fires in educational occupancies in the United States each year, accounting for an annual loss of $65,000,000 in property damage. Although fire deaths in schools average less than one per year, hundreds have been injured.

We all want to provide our children with the best available fire safety in their schools. Yet many new schools are still being built without the best single element of fire protection: an automatic fire sprinkler system.

Automatic sprinklers are widely recognized as the number one tool of fire protection. In over one hundred years of use, there has never been a multiple fatality of building occupants from fire in a building protected by a properly designed, installed, and maintained sprinkler system. Virtually all new shopping malls, nursing homes, high rise buildings and hotels are being protected with sprinklers. Why not schools?

Should Schools Be Protected With Automatic Sprinklers?

Yes. Automatic fire sprinklers represent the state-of-the-art in fire protection, and should not be overlooked when new schools are built. They offer the best in terms of both life safety and property protection.

How Do Fire Sprinklers Work?

Individual automatic sprinklers are spaced throughout the building at the ceiling level, and are connected to piping hidden within the ceiling. The piping contains water under pressure. In the event of a fire, one or more sprinklers nearest the fire will sense the heat. Melting of a fusible element or breaking of a glass bulb will permit water to flow only from the sprinklers in the area of the fire. Contrary to what is sometimes shown on television sitcoms, all sprinklers in the building do not operate simultaneously.

Sprinklers distribute water directly where it is needed to confine and control the fire. In the majority of fires, only one or two sprinklers are required to operate.

Aren’t Schools Built to be Fireproof?

Building codes regulate building materials and techniques, and the use of fire resistive construction is one way that codes permit the large building areas needed for educational facilities. But even though the building may not burn, the contents will. Building an unsprinklered fire resistive compartment is like building an oven. If enough combustibles are placed within a compartment, the fire can proceed to "flashover." When that happens, toxic products of combustion can spread beyond the fire area and throughout the facility.

Sprinklers respond to a fire while it is still small, preventing the fire from developing into a major threat.

Don’t Schools Rely on Alarms and Exit Drills for Fire Protection?

Yes, and the successful implementation of school fire drills is probably the main reason we’ve been able to keep fire deaths and injuries to a minimum. But alarms and fire drills don’t put out the fire, and they don’t protect the building during non-school hours.

Schools represent an important investment on the part of a community. Built-in protection against fire not only protects that investment but also ensures uninterrupted use of the learning environment.

What About the Possibility of Arson?

Arson is a major problem in schools. Fire records from 1990 through 1994 show that more than half of all educational facility fires were of incendiary or suspicious origin. The deliberately set fires caused all the deaths, half the injuries, and three-fifths of the property damage.
Sprinklers protect against arson. They are on guard 24 hours a day. System control valves and water flow switches can be supervised around the clock to ensure that the systems are in operational order and to quickly notify the fire department in the event the system is actuated.

How Reliable Are Sprinklers?

Records of fires in buildings with supervised automatic fire sprinkler systems have indicated successful extinguishment or control in more than 99 percent of fire incidents. No other fire protection system or feature has a comparable record of reliability.

What About Water Damage?

Because sprinklers attack the fire while it is still small, the total amount of water needed for fire suppression is small, often less than 50 gallons per minute. If the fire is permitted to grow, the fire department will typically apply hundreds of gallons of water per minute during their operations. For this reason, total amounts of water used in sprinklered buildings approximate one-tenth the amounts used in fires in nonsprinklered buildings.

The likelihood of a sprinkler discharging water in the absence of a fire is very small. Each model of sprinkler is subjected to rigorous laboratory tests to guarantee long-term integrity, and every single sprinkler is hydrostatically tested at twice the maximum system water pressure prior to leaving the factory.

Vandalism has not been a significant problem in schools that are protected with sprinklers. Once students understand the role and operation of fire sprinklers, they leave them alone.

Aren’t Sprinkler Systems Expensive?

No, in fact sprinklers can often reduce the total cost of construction.

Typically, sprinkler systems can be installed for about 1 percent of building cost, or less than $2 per square foot. But if the decision to use sprinklers is made early enough in the planning process, sprinklers can actually reduce total construction costs through the use of code incentives or "trade-offs".

Knowledgeable architects and builders recognize that building codes contain incentives. In recognition of the superior fire protection afforded by sprinklers, codes permit reductions in fire resistance ratings, longer exit travel distances, and a wider range of interior finish materials in sprinklered buildings. Judiciously applied, these incentives make it possible to build a safer building for less money.

A small Texas community recently looked at the cost of sprinkler protection for a 160,000 square foot, two-story high school. The school board felt that the $240,000 cost of a sprinkler system could not be justified on the basis of insurance savings alone. By applying the fire sprinkler incentives contained in the building code, however, it was found that the sprinkler system would more than pay for itself through savings in fire walls and other construction features. Without reducing building quality, the sprinklered school could be built for hundreds of thousands of dollars less than the nonsprinklered school.

How Can We Get Our Schools Sprinklered?

If your community is considering building a new school, make sure your local officials understand the benefits of automatic fire sprinkler systems. Make sure that hydroarchitectural firms being considered for the project are aware of the building code incentives for fire sprinklers.
Ask your local fire officials for their support in your effort. Members of the fire service are very much aware of the benefits of built-in fire protection systems, and are the best advocates for automatic fire sprinklers.

Number of Fires in Selected Educational Facilities, 1990 to 1994, Annual Averages

Type of Schools --------Number of Fires ----------Number of Injuries

Nursery schools -------------129 -----------------------------1
Kindergartens -----------------35 ------------------------------0
Elementary schools ---------1,666 --------------------------36
Junior high schools ----------1,185 --------------------------21
High schools ------------------2,330 --------------------------57
Residential schools -----------405 ---------------------------12
Vocational, trade schools ----149 ----------------------------5
Business schools -------------- 21----------------------------- 0
Specialty schools -------------- 86 -----------------------------1
College classroom buildings -551 1--------------------------4

Reprinted from NFPA Journal – September/October 1997, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Massachusetts.

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