Recent data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows that fire departments respond to an average of almost 5,000 school fires every year. Almost 70 percent of these fires occurred in schools serving kindergarten through 12th grade and resulted in 351 injuries. These statistics underscore the need for a comprehensive fire safety plan – one that covers the entire range of fire risks that may be present in your school.
While most schools have plans in place to cover their federally-mandated monthly fire drills and other actions they must take to ensure the safety of students and staff when a fire breaks out, not all of them fully address fire prevention. With modern fire prevention systems including fire alarms and sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and fire-safe construction, it’s easy to see why.
Whether you incorporate fire safety into your overall school safety plan or create a stand-alone fire safety plan, it is important to address not only how to respond in the event of a fire, but also how to prevent fires from occurring in the first place.
This post provides a summary of some important yet often overlooked elements of a school fire safety plan to help you develop a more comprehensive plan that not only addresses how to respond when a fire breaks out but also how to minimize your school’s fire risk.
Fire Safety Measures that Apply to All Schools
All schools have classrooms and most have large, open areas such as auditoriums and gymnasiums, in which students congregate. Basic fire safety measures that apply to these areas include the following:
❏ The use of portable heaters should be avoided. If they must be used, care should be taken to ensure all combustible materials are kept far away from them.
❏ Any electrical appliances should be checked on a regular basis for damaged cords and disconnected when not in use.
❏ Minimize the use of extension cords whenever possible.
❏ All unused outlets in kindergarten and preschool spaces should be covered with safety plugs.
❏ The use of candles and other open flames in classrooms should be strictly prohibited.
❏ Minimize the number of combustibles in the space to the extent possible. This means disposing of discarded paper and trash every day.
❏ A map showing the school’s floor plan marked with the location of the classroom and evacuation routes should be placed adjacent to the classroom door.
❏ All doorways in all spaces should be kept clear of any obstructions.
❏ All emergency lighting, including exit lights above doors, should be checked monthly to keep them in good working order.
As in classrooms and gymnasiums, all emergency lighting and exit lights in the hallways of your school should be checked monthly and all exits should remain unobstructed at all times. There are a few additional measures specific to hallways and doors that should also be incorporated into your plan:
❏ Avoid wedging open hallway doors as this can allow a fire to spread more quickly throughout the building.
❏ Test all fire doors regularly to ensure the hardware is intact and that they close properly.
❏ No more than 20 percent of the wall area should be covered with papers, fabric wall hangings, and other combustible materials, and all paper should be restricted to bulletin boards and fastened at all corners.
Other areas that are easy to overlook when developing a fire safety plan include offices, storage areas, and maintenance rooms:
❏ All cleaning compounds should be stored with proper ventilation as many can produce flammable vapors.
❏ Cleaning compounds and other combustibles should never be stored in boiler rooms, furnace rooms, or electrical rooms.
❏ Electrical outlets should never be overloaded and all wiring should be kept away from doorways, windows and never placed under carpeting where they can become worn.
❏ Wiring in electrical rooms should be inspected at least annually for any damage or wear.
❏ All heating equipment should be inspected at least annually to ensure they are in proper working order.
❏ All gas-powered equipment should be stored outdoors. If they must be stored indoors, they should be kept in a fire-rated room with a minimum one-hour fire separation.
Additional Measures for Middle and High Schools
Many middle schools and high schools offer programs such as home economics or culinary arts in which students are working in kitchens, industrial technology where students use power equipment, paint, and other combustible materials, and laboratories where students expand their understanding of science with hands-on activities. If your school offers one or more of these types of programs, your fire safety plan will need to include additional safety measures unique to those spaces.
Schools with laboratories need to adopt the following safety measures and practices:
- Less chemicals means less risk – order and store only the minimum supply needed.
- Keep your laboratories as clean as possible at all times, removing waste properly every day.
- Material Data Safety Sheets (MSDS) provide critical information on the proper storage and disposal of chemicals as well as how to respond to adverse exposure. These should be kept on-hand and readily available in hard copy for every chemical contained in the laboratory.
- All chemicals should be inventoried annually and discarded properly if they are no longer needed or show signs of deterioration.
- Care must also be taken to ensure that incompatible chemicals are not stored together as this can potentially lead to dangerous chemical reactions including combustion or explosion. This information can be found on the MSDS for chemicals in question.
- All flammable liquids must be properly stored in a flammable liquids cabinet and dispensed from an approved safety container.
- As with other spaces in the school, any electrical hazards identified should be repaired promptly and outlets should never be overloaded.
About 20 percent of school fires occur in kitchens and cooking areas. If your school offers programs in which students are working in kitchens, you can minimize the risk of fire by including all of the following measures into your fire safety plan:
- Have all hoods and filters inspected and cleaned regularly to avoid dangerous accumulation of grease.
- Clean up all spills immediately, and do not allow garbage to accumulate.
- Towels or other cloths used in the kitchen, as well as any paper or plastic products used to serve food, should be kept away from all heated appliances.
- All kitchens must be equipped with fire extinguishers that are easily accessible and suitable for grease fires, and all fire extinguishers should be inspected on a regular basis.
Koorsen offers additional fire safety tips for commercial kitchens, most of which are equally applicable to school kitchens, here.
Industrial Arts and Technology Workshops
Schools that offer industrial arts and technology programs should include the following measures in their fire safety plans:
❏ Workshops should be kept clear of debris and inspected daily for any hazards.
❏ The use of extension cords should be avoided. If they must be used, they should never be overloaded.
❏ All compressed gas cylinders should be secured in an upright position and care should always be taken when handling them to avoid any damage that could result in leakage.
❏ Welding should never be conducted in an area where combustible materials are stored.
❏ Suitable waste cans should be provided for the disposal of oil-soaked rags and paint rags.
❏ Flammable liquids should be stored in safety cans equipped for dispensing in small amounts.
❏ Good ventilation is a must, particularly for any painting or finishing operations.
All workshops should also be equipped with portable fire extinguishers that are easily accessible and suitable for the types of combustibles used in the shop. For some shops, this may require different types of extinguishers. This article will help you determine which type(s) of fire extinguishers your school’s workshop might need. All fire extinguishers should be inspected on a regular basis.
Good Security Can Also Help Prevent Fires
The NFPA data shows that more than 35 percent of school fires were started intentionally – a fact that underscores the need to evaluate your onsite security measures when developing your fire safety plan. You can start by checking out Koorsen’s post on Smart Ways to Keep Schools Safe.
With Koorsen Fire and Security, you get the best of both worlds – more than 70 years of experience in fire safety and deep expertise in school security. We can help you develop a comprehensive school fire safety plan that minimizes your fire risk and security measures that will help keep your school safe from arson. Contact us today to find out how.