Fire Codes for School Buildings: An Overview

Published January 2, 2014 by Whirlwind Team

school fire code

There are over 132,000 public and private schools for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade in the United States. There was an average of about 4,000 structural fires annually at these educational facilities between 2007 and 2011, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Nearly 1,000 of these fires were trash or rubbish fires that remained contained. Almost 2,000, including some of those trash fires, were arson.

Fire Codes

Fire codes have been in place for decades seeking to limit damage, injury and loss of life due to fire in high occupancy buildings. Schools are especially vulnerable because they house children. Depending on jurisdiction, the fire marshal or the fire chief is responsible for educating and enforcing fire code regulations, requiring the codes and tips for preventing, containing, or escaping a fire to be prominently posted.

Common public school fire codes include statements and regulations about:

  • Evacuation
  • Storage
  • Electrical and space heaters
  • Decorations
  • Fire protection equipment

Here is an example from the Harris County, TX Fire Marshall’s office.

Evacuation

You may recall participating in fire drills during your school days. Teachers took you to the nearest available exit in an orderly fashion and the practice was timed to see how long it took to clear the building. In the event of a real fire, everyone would be familiar with where to go.

Fire drills are still an important part of fire safety instruction. If a fire cannot be prevented, a rapid escape is the next step. Most evacuation measures require all building occupants to know two ways out of any building.

Supporting this are customized maps near each exit doorway at a height children can see. These maps show where in the building the room is located and solid, dotted, or colored lines show the primary and alternate route from that exit to the outside.

Storage

Whether we like it or not, combustible material is everywhere. It consists of wood, paper, rubber, Styrofoam, foam rubber, cardboard, plastic, and other materials that burn easily. Combustible may NOT be stored:

  • Within 24” of any ceiling
  • In electrical rooms, air handling rooms, or mechanical rooms
  • In exit corridors or hallways

The ceiling is a place for fire to hide, especially those with panel ceilings hiding electrical, plumbing, and other systems above the room. These areas are extremely difficult for firefighters to reach.

Electrical and mechanical rooms may spark a fire simply by getting too hot or by sparking. Air handling rooms can spread toxic smoke and fumes as well as nourish and spread a fire with the additional oxygen and ventilation they make available.

Exits and hallways should always remain unblocked to make exit fast and easy. Nothing is more frightening or heart breaking than injuries or death due to a blocked fire exit.

Electrical/Space Heaters

A common requirement here is that electrical cords and multiple plug adaptors are limited to short time use. If a permanent solution is needed it must be hard-wired into the facility. Extension cords can fray, come partially unplugged or overheat causing a spark and fire hazard. Plugging an extension cord into a surge protector will not pass along surge protection to the other end or keep the connection from overheating or sparking.

Space heaters have been the cause of several fires, generally when they are set up too close near something flammable. In the Harris County, TX example, space heaters cannot be used within 3 feet of combustible materials. These materials do not have to come into contact with the heater itself to catch fire. The heater must also have an automatic tip-over switch to turn it off if it is knocked onto its side.

Decorations

Since most school projects involve one or more types of paper, plastic, or other combustible, there are limitations placed upon these as well. For instance, no more than 20% of the wall may be covered with decoration or teaching materials. All must be flat, no three dimensional artwork. This decreases the amount of combustible materials in the hallway to maintain safety from starting a fire as well as in cases of egress.

Decorations are also barred from:

  • Within a 3 foot radius of doorways.
  • Attachment to the ceiling. Suspension amount should remain minimal.

Just as with keeping combustible materials more than 24” from the ceiling, excess material near the ceiling can help spread fire farther into the upper reaches of the building or into a covered area where it is difficult to fight.

Strings of decorative lights are limited to a 90 day use and LED ropes are recommended instead for long term use.

Fire Protection Equipment

Schools are expected to maintain and test fire alarm manual pull stations and fire extinguishers. You have seen these in any hallway of a large building. The fire extinguisher is usually in a built-in cabinet near the alarm pull. In no instance should the alarm pull or the extinguisher access be blocked or hidden.

Conclusion

All regulations such as these are based on recommendations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Both institutions have done extensive testing to provide fire ratings for materials, study how fire starts and spreads, and understand how structures behave in a fire.

All schools should have a comparable fire safety policy and procedure including the holding of drills and maintaining escape ways. You should always check with your local code authority for specific requirements.

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