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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958

National Fire Sprinkler Association

2000 Third Place Essay Contest Winner

Why My School Does Have Fire Sprinklers

By: Mave Anne McKinney, Norman North High School, Norman, OK

Recently my awareness and appreciation of fire sprinklers and their unparalleled record of success for protecting life and property in schools was radically increased by a fortuitous visit to my school's scholarship files. My research journey into fire sprinklers and their contribution to school safety began with a brief exploration of its history. An American, Henry S. Parmelee invented sprinklers, in 1874 to protect his piano factory. Until the 1940s-50s, sprinklers were used exclusively for the protection of buildings, especially warehouses and factories.

Sadly, it often takes a catastrophe causing great loss of life to force authorities to seek better means of insuring public safety. Such was the case of the fire at Chicago's Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958 that claimed the lives of 92 children and 3 nuns. Although multiple factors contributed to this deadly fire, most fire experts agree that automatic fire sprinklers would have saved the life of every person who perished. The horrifying details of that great tragedy should be required reading for any citizen who might consider limited funds as an excuse to compromise the safety of children.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, school fire-safety standards improved nationwide. Many states tightened fire codes which were the impetus for increased installation of fire sprinklers in schools. Even with these tragic lessons of the past and the ensuing changes in building and fire codes, many schools exist today without fire sprinklers. Some of this can be attributed to limited funds, inadequate building codes and/or enforcement.

This lead to the second phase of my journey, the exploration of building and fire codes for schools. A meeting with Chief John Dutch, and Fire Marshal Russell Graham in Norman, Oklahoma revealed a complex strata of model building codes, such as, the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) National Building Code, the Life Safety Code, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 101) Code. When posed the question as to why schools should have fire sprinklers; both emphasized sprinklers' indisputable success in minimizing and preventing loss of life and property. Building codes were also cited that mandate installation of automatic fire sprinklers in newly constructed schools with 50 or more occupants. Proper design and installation of sprinklers is dictated by national standards set forth by NFPA. Some cities enact retrofit legislation requiring schools to be retrofitted with sprinklers when significant additions or improvements are made.

The third leg of my journey took me to Oklahoma Vista Fire Sprinkler Company where Mr. Don Reed provided a comprehensive tour and additional facts. Once again, I posed the question, "Why should schools have fire sprinklers?" He referred to the NFPA record that has not recorded a single instance of a fire killing three, or more people in a house, apartment, hotel or school where a complete fire sprinkler system was operating. He further added that fire sprinklers are not reliant on human activation to suppress fires, which is invaluable when buildings are unoccupied or emergency assistance is delayed. Sprinklers activate automatically where the fire originates while simultaneously alerting occupants and emergency assistance. The majority of fires in a sprinklered school are suppressed in minutes with 2-5 heads using a faction of the water used by fire hoses. This early intervention prevents fire spread and reduces the amount of heat, smoke and water damage. In short, fire sprinklers dramatically reduce every life-threatening aspect of a fire.

Mr. Reed addressed the argument that installation of fire sprinklers in new and existing schools is cost prohibitive. For new con struction, systems usually cost from $1.50-$2.00 per sq. foot. The system cost can be offset by insurance savings and construction "trade offs" permitted by building codes in view of the superior protection afforded by sprinklers. These savings can be reinvested into education.

The final phase of my research led to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Requesting articles on the effectiveness of fire sprinkles in past school fires yielded a wealth of information. The best examples occurred in April 1994 when three large Minnesota High Schools were damaged by arson fires. All demonstrated the effectiveness of automatic fire sprinklers as well as the benefit of retrofitting existing schools. The most damaging fire occurred at Burnsville High School where fires, started with a liquid accelerant, rapidly spread. The majority of the building was not equipped with fire sprinklers; however, sprinklers had been installed in the newly added gymnasium area. The fire was stopped at the sprinkled areas and did not spread beyond those points. Total fire loss, virtually limited to the unsprinkled areas was estimated over seven million dollars. The school was closed for the remainder of the year and reopened the following September equipped with automatic fire sprinklers.

A second school, Edina High School, had been recently upgraded with fire sprinkler. A fire was started in a Principal's office and was extinguished with two sprinkler heads with very little smoke and fire damage outside the office. About the same time, a fire occurred at the Minnetonka High School, which had been retrofitted for fire sprinklers in response to building code requirements during a major remodeling project. Multiple fires were started and even at the height of the fire, activating 12 sprinkler heads, local fire officials stated "the building was never untenable due to smoke or heat." Fire sprinklers were discovered to also preserve fire evidence necessary for follow up investigation. Due to the effectiveness of the sprinkler systems, both schools proceeded with scheduled events that evening. Their combined fire loss was only $150,000 as compared to the millions at Burnsville High School, which did not include the loss of academic works or the disruption of relocation.

Now, when entering a building, I am keenly aware of the presence of fire sprinklers and I find myself thinking "that's a recessed sprinkler or that's a sidewall sprinkler". As a result of my journey, I have learned the answer to "Why should your school have fire sprinklers?" — because every child's life is worth it.


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