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April 2010: Sprinklers are Installed in Colleges for 20 year old Students. Why not for 6-year-old children in Kindergarten?

Several years ago a college student set fire to a dormitory at Seton Hall University located in Newark, NJ. The fire tragically killed several students. Automatic sprinkler protection was not installed in the dorm, nor was it required by code. The fire department was located within two miles of the dorm. If automatic sprinkler protection had been installed, it is probable that those students would have survived the fire. As a reaction to the tragic fire Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, decided to add automatic sprinkler protection throughout the university in all classrooms and dormitories.

On November 1, 2006 a fire occurred at Eastern Guilford High School in Gibsonville, NC. The fire spread through the building's roof, causing collapse into the rooms below. The fire department was located five miles away and arrived in minutes. There were no injuries. However, the speed of the fire would prevent the fire department from saving the school. The fire caused a total loss of the school valued at $41 million. The school was also built to code in 1974 and had no automatic sprinkler protection or smoke alarms. There were 1,068 students that had to attend school the next day with no place to go. A new high school was built with fire alarms and sprinkler systems within the next two years.

A new gymnasium and kindergarten wing with five classrooms was added on to the local grammar school in Woodcliff Lake, NJ within the last few years. Both were built to code and neither contained automatic sprinkler protection. A letter was sent to the local fire prevention official, asking him why automatic sprinklers were not installed. He responded that he agreed automatic sprinklers should have been installed, but were not because of cost and the code. The town officials never even brought this to a vote from the local people of the Borough of Woodcliff Lake. If there had been a vote, what might have been the outcome? A school in a well-to-do area of NJ built an addition without automatic sprinkler protection! The addition even included an air conditioning system (there was none in the remainder of the school) for six-year-old students, but no sprinklers. Would a six-year-old even know how to react in a fire?

As fire protection engineers, we know that codes are a minimum standard. Our guidelines are to seek design parameters from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) or Factory Mutual Global (FM) standards. We apply these standards and recommend automatic sprinklers be installed where combustible construction or contents exist. In most cases, schools are built / designed by architects who interpret the codes. There is no thought to hiring a fire protection engineer. Why would anyone want an architect making a decision on installing fire protection? They are not qualified or educated in this discipline. Would a fire protection engineer be hired to design the load bearing capacity on the roof of the school? Of course not.

Schools contain combustible construction and of course have a moderate loading of combustible items. The library, art room, kitchen, gym (wood floor), science labs and all of the books and papers spread throughout the classrooms amount to an occupancy that demands fire protection. The dorms also have quite a bit of combustibles, and the policing of safe practices - such as preventing smoking or the use of candles - is impossible on a daily basis. There is also the arson issue, which is more prevalent at the high school and college level.

After the fire at Eastern Guilford High School the town decided to build a new 270,000 sq. ft. high school. They wisely decided to install a sprinkler system. The cost was $556,500, bringing the cost to a little over $2 per sq. ft. The Emergency Services Chief, Alan Purdue, stated, "Even if you did a retrofit of our old existing building and doubled the cost as a ballpark figure, it's far cheaper than replacing the whole building." In most cases, sprinkler piping / heads can be installed at a reasonable price since there are no hung ceilings to deal with, and there is a three month window during the summer when schools are not in session. There is no inconvenience factor excuse.

One wonders how the parents of the six-year-old NJ students would have voted if they knew this information. Instead, the local politicians didn't even give the parents a chance to vote.

NFPA Statistics on Educational Structure Fires