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Investigations: Investigative Reports

Fire drill

Two-thirds of Massachusetts schools lack sprinkler systems even though fires are commonplace

BY: Jack Sullivan
Issue: Fall 2012

' As adults we believe we are putting our children into a safe environment,"
says State Fire Marshall Stephen Coan.
as tropical storm Irene raged through the western part of the state during the first weekend of August, a lightning bolt exploded into the Rowe Elementary School and destroyed the small brick and wood building that housed classes for 85 students from kindergarten to sixth grade.

Just a few weeks before, an early morning electrical fire at the Sgt. William H. Carney Memorial Academy in New Bedford ravaged five classrooms at the 600-student elementary school. As in Rowe, no children were in the building because the fire occurred during non-school hours. But both fires caused extensive damage that totaled millions of dollars.

The two school blazes—one in a rural area of Franklin County and the other in a crowded urban district; one the result of a faulty power strip, the other triggered by a force of nature—had little in common except for the fact that there were no sprinklers in the buildings to stem the damage and, if there had been anyone in the buildings, save lives.

Fire is a real danger to Massachusetts students because school-based fires are fairly commonplace and an estimated two-thirds of the state’s 1,800 schools lack sprinklers or other automatic fire suppression equipment. Between 2000 and 2010, an average of nearly 220 fires occurred each year in Massachusetts public schools. While there were no fatalities in any of the fires, 76 people were injured—44 firefighters and 32 members of the public. Damage from the blazes totaled $26.1 million, an average of $2.4 million each year.

Most of the state’s schools lack sprinklers because they were built when Massachusetts law didn’t require them. Sprinklers weren’t mandated in new schools or substantially renovated older schools until 1997. The latter requirement wasn’t really effective until 2008, when the state fire code required nearly all schools that were expanded or renovated to install sprinkler systems. Many schools have unsuccessfully tried to get around that requirement because of the high cost. Only a handful of schools have installed sprinklers in older schools voluntarily.

Sheri Webb, a member of the Deerfield Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Organization in Westwood, was dumbfounded when she learned there were no sprinklers in her children’s school. She understands there is a cost associated with installing sprinklers, but she says children’s safety should not have a price. “This is about taking care of the children,” she says. “That should take precedence.” 

State Fire Marshall Stephen Coan thinks all commercial, residential, and public buildings in the state should be equipped with sprinklers, but he says schools deserve to be among the highest priority. “As adults we believe we are putting our children into a safe environment,” Coan says. “You sure hope where you send your children or grandchildren that there is the benefit of sprinkler systems. Excluding instances of catastrophic blasts or explosions, there has never been a multiple fatality fire in a fully-sprinkled building.”         

A tragic lesson in Chicago

On the first day of December in 1958, about 1,200 students at the Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago were in their last class of the day when a janitor discovered a fire in the back stairwell of one of the school’s wings. To this day, no one knows what started the blaze but many surmise it was a student sneaking a cigarette and putting it into a wastebasket with paper that caught fire.

The smoke and fire quickly spread and none of the teachers knew what to do. Some kept their students in their seats, others led them outside. By the time the Chicago Fire Department was called and a full response was underway, the building was fully engulfed. Several hours later, 92 children between the ages of 8 and 15 were dead along with three nuns who were teachers. It was the third deadliest school fire in United States history and one that triggered numerous changes in national fire safety codes for schools everywhere.

Ironically, about two weeks after the Our Lady of Angels fire, a blaze in a closet at an elementary school in the village of Kenilworth, just 15 miles north of Chicago, was quickly doused by sprinklers in the building. The school’s 650 children were never in danger and damage was limited to the closet.

Fire officials in Massachusetts cite the Our Lady of Angels and the Kenilworth fires whenever they talk about fire safety in schools. The two fires are among some of the first they learn about at the state firefighting academy in Stow.

“There was just a huge mindshift in awareness after the Our Lady of Angels fire,” says Robert Solomon, division manager for building and life safety at the National Fire Protection Association, which is headquartered in Quincy. “A lot of other code violations that were present in the building, issues with the operational aspects, did a lot to change the laws around the country. There was a horrible, horrible delay in getting the children out of the school. It raised awareness of the importance of fire drills.”

The deadly Our Lady fire ended up making schools safer in many ways—there were new mandates requiring fire safety doors, alarms, and detectors; limiting flammable wall hangings and exhibits, and instituting mandatory escape drills—but the blaze did not trigger a push for sprinkler systems, which were relatively rare at the time.

The technology for automatic fire sprinklers has been around since 1872 but until the mid-20th century was used largely in commercial manufacturing buildings. It was, and still is, very expensive to install the systems. But beginning in the 1960s, states started to include them in building codes, mostly for commercial but then for government buildings as well. Data show stark differences in outcomes between fires where there are fire suppression systems to quickly douse a blaze and areas where there is nothing to stop the flames from growing.

The 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island brought the sprinkler issue to the fore. The fire, caused when on-stage pyrotechnics set the club ablaze, killed 100 people. Many states, including Massachusetts, responded by passing laws requiring bars, nightclubs, dance halls, and other entertainment venues that hold 100 or more people to retrofit their buildings with sprinklers. Local government buildings, however, including schools, were specifically exempted from the new 2004 Massachusetts law.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren and Fire Chief Bruce Proia at the Burr Elementary School,
one of four Newton schools where sprinklers are being installed.
“The changes were really directed at what we call a nightclub assembly occupancy—an over-21 crowd, loud music, alcohol—those types of environments,” says Solomon. “Even though there are functions and assemblies at schools, we’re not drinking in that environment.”

But many fire officials say it is money that is really the driving force behind exempting schools from installing sprinklers. Some officials say privately that forcing schools to install sprinklers would be an unfunded mandate that, by law, the state should have to pay. In 2008, the Massachusetts Legislature required sprinklers to be installed in any existing large commercial or public building that undergoes a major renovation that brings the total area of the building to 7,500 square feet or more, which would encompass nearly every commercial, residential, or municipal structure except homes. Unlike the 2004 sprinkler provision prompted by the Station fire, schools were not exempt from this law.

Massachusetts children are protected by laws designed to ensure they are safe at home, by removing lead paint; in cars, with mandated child safety and booster seats; and on the streets, by requiring them to wear bike helmets while riding. Yet every day hundreds of thousands of Bay State children head into an unsafe situation: their aging public schools. Like residents in a nursing home, young children are vulnerable to confusion when it comes to self-preservation in a fire situation. But, with many parents unaware of the risks in the schools they send their kids to, there is little pressure on officials to fund the changes.

“The only time I’ve really heard of parental involvement over the years is around issues such as classroom sizes,” says North Andover’s Fire Chief Andrew Melnikas. “[Lawmakers] wait for the tragedy, things like nursing home fires, dance hall fires. All of a sudden there’s an uproar. After a few years, it dies down until the next tragedy.”

Fire data                          

Relatively few school fires make the evening news, but that doesn’t mean they are a rarity in Massachusetts. State data indicate that, on average, one of every eight schools in the state has a fire each year.

Between 2001 and 2006, there was an average of 223 school fires annually. Arson was listed as the most common or second-most common cause of fires each of those years. In 2001, for example, arson was listed as the cause in 59 percent of the reported fires, followed by cooking (13 percent), electrical (7 percent), heating (7 percent), and smoking (4 percent). Many officials say it is money that is the driving force behind exempting schools from installing sprinklers.State fire officials were concerned that school superintendents weren’t reporting all the fires that take place at schools, so in 2007 they pushed for and the Legislature passed a law requiring all school fires, regardless of size, to be reported to the local fire department. The department, in turn, would fill out an incident report that would be sent to the state fire marshal’s office.

“The law was passed because we had a concern that we didn’t have a good snapshot of the number of fires,” says Coan, the state fire marshal. “All fires start small. Each one of these incidents has the potential to be dangerous.”

Since the law change, the number of reported fires has actually dropped, to an average of 210 a year. In 2010, the latest year available, there were 208 school fires reported. The cause of the fires also shifted. Instead of arson being the primary cause, cooking fires rose to dominance. In 2010, for example, cooking was pegged as the cause of 45 percent of school fires, followed by indoor trash fires, heating, and arson.

Nationally, data from the National Fire Protection Association indicate arson is the cause of half of the school fires, and most are set in bathrooms.

In every year since 2001, at least 61 percent of the fires —with a high of 85 percent in 2003—occurred in schools where there were no sprinklers or automatic fire suppression systems. State officials track the biggest fire in terms of damage each year. In nine of the last 10 years, the biggest fire occurred in a school that did not have sprinklers. The only exception was in Cambridge in 2005.

Coan says there are not exact numbers available for how many schools in the state lack sprinklers but says the consistency of reported fires in schools without the systems is an accurate estimate for how many are lacking them, suggesting that about two-thirds—or roughly 1,200 —of Massachusetts schools are not equipped with automatic fire extinguishing systems.

The school fire reports also show that back-up alert and detection systems cannot necessarily be relied upon. In 2010, fire and smoke detectors were confirmed to have worked in only 59 percent of the school fires. In 26 percent of the fires, it could not be determined if the detectors operated and in 18 percent, the fire was either too small to detect or it was contained and the detector did not go off. In 2 percent of the fires, there were no detectors.

“Detection systems are a very good tool,” says Coan, “but they do not control or contain a fire.”

While the New Bedford and Rowe fires occurred after-hours, statistics show the vast majority of school fires occur during lunch. In 2010, 73 percent of the fires occurred between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 89 percent of all fires happened between Monday and Friday. 

Solomon, from the National Fire Protection Association, says there hasn’t been a major fatal fire in a US school since the Our Lady of Angels fire more than 50 years ago. But he says personal safety is not the sole benefit of fire sprinkler systems. Solomon says early suppression of fires can also minimize property loss and avoid ramifications that can affect an entire community.

“Now all of a sudden you have a community that doesn’t have a back-up school,” he says. “Schools are a focal point of the community. It affects sports, it affects community events, it affects civic gatherings, voting.”

Calvin Lawrence, a captain with the Westborough Fire Department, says sprinklers do reduce property damage, but the reason he would like to see the systems added to the three schools in town without them is to save lives.

“Sprinklers are not there for property protection,” he says. “Sprinklers are there for life safety, to provide an opportunity for people to escape.”

A costly fix               

The cost of installing sprinklers at schools can be astronomical. Including sprinklers as part of a new building costs about $6.50 a square foot, while adding sprinklers during a retrofit can run as much as $8 a square foot, according to industry experts. Depending on how elaborate the sprinkler system is—whether the pipes are hidden behind ceiling panels, and other unforeseen obstacles such as water supply and pressure—it could run as high as $25 per square foot.

School districts typically don’t have the money to install sprinklers and some go to great lengths to avoid doing it. Sometimes it ends up looking penny-wise and pound-foolish. Rowe, for example, renovated its elementary school in 2008 just before the law requiring the installation of sprinklers took effect. The community chose not to install sprinklers because the cost was considered prohibitive because of a lack of a water supply nearby. Yet when lightning struck earlier this year, the school burned to the ground.

When the town builds a new elementary school, they will have to install sprinklers using pressurized water tanks. “It certainly is an additional cost, but if the code requires a sprinkler system then the code requires a sprinkler system,” says Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the state Department of Fire Services. “The lack of a municipal water supply is not going to be an obstacle.”

In 2009, North Andover officials wanted to ease overcrowding at the Kittredge Elementary School by adding a modular structure of about 3,600 square feet with three classrooms and an office. Melnikas, the fire chief, ordered sprinklers installed under the retrofit requirement, but school officials balked at the $240,000 cost. They unsuccessfully appealed to the state Automatic Sprinklers Appeals Board, which is located in the Executive Office of Public Safety. The town did, however, receive a time extension and the work was completed this year.

In 2010, Westwood officials planned to add on two modular classrooms to the aging Deerfield Elementary School. Westwood Fire Chief William Scoble ordered that the school be retrofitted with sprinklers, a decision local officials appealed to the Sprinklers Appeals Board.

The board ended up siding with the chief, but rather than complying with the decision, school officials abandoned the expansion so they would not have to install sprinklers. The officials now say they plan to install sprinklers when the Deerfield School is replaced, though that could be years from now.

School Superintendent John Antonucci did not return several calls for comment. Scoble would not criticize the decision, adding that the cost-benefit analysis of sprinklers is a delicate dance, balancing tight budgets against perceived risk. Three of Westwood’s eight schools do not have sprinklers. Scoble says there have been several school fires in Westwood during his tenure at  the department, including at the high school while his children were students there. The high school now has a sprinkler system.

Scoble’s wife’s aunt and uncle were killed in the Coconut Grove fire in Boston in 1942, so for him, fire safety is a personal issue. “A single sprinkler head can change the entire outcome,” he says. “We’ve had a couple of serious school fires [in Westwood] over the years. They can make a big difference. Sprinklers save lives and properties. It absolutely cannot be refuted.”

Some communities are not waiting for state orders or a tragedy before installing sprinklers. Newton Mayor Setti Warren is in the midst of a major capital building effort in his city. But while it was rarely talked about in the 28 “town hall” meetings officials had about school additions and renovations, fire safety became an issue as planners were confronted with state laws.

In addition to his responsibilities as mayor and the chairman of the school committee, Warren is also a father. His daughter began classes this year at the Cabot Elementary School, one of nine of the city’s 21 schools that are not equipped with sprinklers. His son will be there next year.

Warren is adamant about outfitting all of Newton’s schools with sprinklers and making sure the cost is part of all projects going forward. “I have very strong confidence in our public safety officials when I think about my daughter going to that school,” says Warren. “But I also feel very strongly we should be doing everything we can to make all our schools safe and to meet the highest standards of safety.”

Newton is currently renovating the Day Middle School and adding on modular classrooms to four of its elementary schools. Initially, the projects were budgeted at $5 million without sprinkler systems factored in. Warren and Newton’s fire chief, Bruce Proia, who also has a daughter attending the Cabot School, say it was a combination of the state law requiring retrofitting and a desire to ensure safety that prompted officials to redesign the renovations to include sprinklers. The change tacked on nearly $4 million to the project, bringing the total cost to more than $9 million.

“All chiefs are going to advocate for sprinkler systems and fire safety,” says Proia. “We’ve experienced a number of fires in Newton…and it causes a disruption of services, firefighter injuries. The end result is it will save lives and it will reduce the amount of damage.”

Newton officials had created a database to weigh the priorities of the renovations, and Warren says safety was given the most weight in the calculations, which always led back to installing sprinklers. Warren says in the tight economy there is always a concern about adding money to a project as well as additional time to complete the renovations. But, he says, it is not open for debate.

“It’s the right thing to do for our city,” he says. “Public safety is first and it’s always been first.” 

MassINC intern Ali Zelisko contributed to this report.  

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