School Fire Safety

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Judging from the mail, a recent column on school crime and fire safety hit a lot of raw nerves. A number of readers had some interesting comments and their reaction indicates that this has become a nationwide problem that deserves more attention.

The May column reported that school officials in some areas were more concerned with security that fire safety and were locking exit doors in an effort to keep out the hoodlums who have unleashed a violent crime wave in the schools. It also revealed that some school systems have been caught in a budget squeeze and allowed fire protection in the buildings to deteriorate. The dangers include inoperable or malfunctioning fire alarms and fire doors, overcrowding, poor housekeeping and other code violations.

While sympathetic to the plight of the education community, the fire service has to be tough and uncompromising in the enforcement of school fire safety codes. A fire department cannot ignore locked exit doors and the other violations that could lead to a tragic, multi-death fire. Part of the problem is that people are more afraid of crime than they are of fire; they don't understand what can happen when there's a delayed alarm and a school building fills with heavy smoke. The ultimate nightmare is the thought of panic-stricken children being unable to escape because exit doors have been chained or padlocked.

A Wisconsin teacher cites several fire disasters in non-school buildings where a delayed alarm and/or locked exits caused a large loss of life. He writes: "Violence in our schools is equated with beatings, stabbings, robbery and gunfire...Students, parents, teachers and school officials must recognize that school buildings though made of stone, steel, brick and tile are not immune from fire. And, the monthly fire drill must be returned to its true purpose preparedness, protection and emergency response rather than a statutory obligation and a temporary chaotic release from the classroom."

One fire he mentions is Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago, IL, where a delayed discovery, delayed alarm and open stairwell were responsible for the deaths of 92 children and three nuns. I worked at that fire and, like everyone else involved, I'll never forget it. There were a lot of things wrong in that building, but the exit doors were open and hundreds of children were able to escape without injury. That was 38 years ago and most educators have no personal memory of the fire. But they have plenty of experience with violent crime, because they confront it every day. They would do well to remember that arson is one of the many crimes that can be committed in their schools.

An ex-firefighter in Colorado points out that the panic bars normally found on exit doors should prevent them from being opened from the outside. The problem is that students often open the doors from the inside to allow outsiders to come in. He also suggests that special keys to open locked doors could be placed in boxes on the outside wall so that firefighters could gain entry when they respond. But if there's a delayed alarm, all the firefighters will find are bodies piled up at doors that could not be opened from the inside. That is the bitter lesson from the fires that have taken thousands of lives in this century. There is no compromise, no way to avoid the simple truth: exit doors must be unlocked while school is in session.

When it comes to deteriorating buildings and fire protection systems that don't work, a Maryland reader takes to me to task for pointing out that schools are faced with the same type of budget cutting that has devastated many fire departments. His sympathy is with overburdened taxpayers and he describes himself as "steaming" over my comments about "cheapskates who want to save a few bucks on their taxes" being partly responsible for unsafe schools and understaffed fire companies. Well, I said it and I meant it. All across this country, local governments have been hit hard by the combination of economic conditions, tax and spending limitations and politicians who cut budgets and taxes without regard for the consequences.

He cites Washington, DC, as an example of a money-wasting, bureaucratic school system and draws a contrast by arguing that DC Fire Department employees deliver service as they're supposed to do. Maybe he's right about the schools, but he's wrong about the fire department. The District of Columbia's firefighters are making a heroic effort to do their job under the worst possible conditions. But the fire department's capacity to deliver emergency services has been impaired by the ruthless budget cuts imposed by a tight-fisted Congress and an incompetent city government.

Back to the schools. I've been listening to the fire radio while writing this column and, in the past few hours, there have been fire alarms at four different schools and a half-dozen EMS calls, including one for an assault case. Fortunately, all of the fires were minor incidents. But it's a reminder of how dangerous the schools have become and that fires as well as crimes are daily occurrences. The warning is clear: school security is important, but every fire department must be aware of a growing and dangerous problem that calls for aggressive inspections and strict enforcement of the school fire safety codes.


Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.

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