Putting Out Fires

If you think a fire could not start in your school district, think again. According to the National Fire Protection Association, an average of 8,200 school fires occur every year in the United States. In addition, statistics suggest that many school fires are arson-related.

Given this information, how do school administrators protect lives and property? What kind of detection and alarm systems provide the best protection? And, what types of extinguishing systems should be considered?

Securing your buildings Simple security measures that prevent access to building interiors can reduce the threat of arson, including ensuring all windows, doors and gates to enter the property are locked at the end of the day. Security screens and break-resistant glass also should be used on lower floors that are easily accessible by vandals.

In the event that a fire does occur, it is important to have the appropriate fire-safety systems in place. The two main types of fire- detection devices are heat and smoke detectors. Heat detectors are designed to sound an alarm at a set temperature, generally 25 degrees above the maximum expected room temperature.

Heat detectors tend to work best in confined areas and where there is a possibility of rapid heat generation. The larger the room, the longer it will take for the heat detector to activate. In schools, heat detectors should be considered for boiler rooms and chemical-storage rooms.

While heat detectors are the least expensive type of fire-safety equipment (about $22 per unit) and have the lowest false-alarm rate, they are the slowest to activate. A fire usually is fully involved before the room is hot enough to trigger the heat detector.

Smoke detectors, although more expensive (about $100 per unit), have a speed advantage over heat detectors. Because smoke spreads quickly, it is more likely to trigger a detector faster than a temperature change. Emergency evacuation and response activities then can be initiated sooner. Smoke detectors usually provide the best protection for large, open areas such as cafeterias, assembly halls or gymnasiums.

Smoke detectors frequently are subject to false alarms caused when high concentrations of dust enter the device. Boiler rooms, unpaved parking areas and athletic fields tend to generate a lot of dust, and can trigger an alarm in or near these areas. In a school setting, a smoke detector requires frequent maintenance and cleaning to ensure accurate responses.

Making alarming decisions The primary purpose of the detection or alarm system is to provide an early warning for building occupants that need to evacuate and enact an emergency plan. Emergency response procedures are determined by the type of alarm system in use, such as:

-Local alarm systems. These systems are activated at the detector site only, and the sound spreads throughout the entire building. The alarm notifies all building occupants of the need to evacuate and functions 24 hours a day.

The system, however, relies on an individual to phone the fire department and initiate emergency response activities. Obviously, emergency response cannot be activated in an unoccupied building. There have been incidents where the person responsible for calling the fire department has to physically verify that there is an actual fire, not a false alarm, prior to making the call, resulting in a loss of valuable response time.

-Central alarm station systems. These systems allow the alarm to sound at the fire's location, as well as at a monitoring location. The monitoring location can be the fire dispatching center or a private company that will initiate emergency response activity.

The primary advantage of the central alarm is that it allows notification of the fire department even if no one is on site, ensuring prompt response. It is more costly than a local alarm, though rates vary among companies. A central alarm must be maintained and tested every 6 months with the monitoring company to ensure that the primary and back-up power supplies are functioning properly. Some schools require more frequent testing, depending on state laws.

-Manual pull stations. These units are wall-mounted handles that allow the alarm to be activated from various stations throughout the building. The manual pull station operates independently of any automatic detection system and, once activated, can be monitored through both local and central stations. Manual pull stations allow occupants to sound the alarm at the first sign of a fire, allowing evacuation and emergency responses before a smoke detector has identified the situation. However, manual pull stations are useless if no one is on site. And in schools, they tend to be a source of intentional false alarms by students.

With any alarm system, power supply is crucial. The system should be equipped with both primary and secondary power systems. The primary power usually is connected to the building's electrical lines. A battery-operated power supply is an option, but requires frequent maintenance and replacement.

The secondary power supply should be the backup generator for the building or a battery source. To avoid destruction of the backup generator, it usually is located in a separate room in the basement or on ground level.

Extinguishing Systems After the fire has been detected and the alarm triggered, extinguishing the fire is the next priority. Automatic water-supplied sprinklers are the primary fire-protection system in schools, and these may be wet- or dry-pipe systems.

A wet-pipe sprinkler system has water in the pipeline at the sprinkler head. In the event of fire, water is supplied immediately when a fusible link in the sprinkler head melts. Only sprinkler heads in the fire area will activate. Water flow from the wet-pipe system is continuous until the main water valve is shut down.

The main water valve should only be shut down by the fire department. Although it may cause water damage, this is minor compared to the potential damage caused by a fire.

A wet-pipe system must be inspected monthly by in-house personnel to ensure adequate water supply and to keep the pipes from freezing in unheated portions of buildings. An independent inspector should perform an annual flow test, where water is run through the system to ensure acceptable water supply and pressure. In comparison, a dry-pipe sprinkler system, which is filled with air, can be used in unheated areas.

In a dry-pipe system, when the sprinkler head melts (as with the wet-pipe system), air pressure is released allowing for water to flow from the main riser to the sprinkler head. There is a delay from the time the sprinkler head activates until the water begins to flow. The dry-pipe system cannot cover as large an area as a wet-pipe system because the air pressure in the pipe has to be sufficient to keep the main riser valve shut. This valve keeps the water out of the sprinkler piping. If the pipe system is too large, the air pressure will not effectively extinguish a fire.

A secondary extinguishing system consists of wall-mounted or cabinet-held portable fire extinguishers. Because specific kinds of extinguishers are used for particular types of fires, only authorized employees who have received proper training should use fire extinguishers.

Fire-detection and alarm systems can help save lives and property when a fire occurs. It is important to determine the proper system for your school. At a minimum, automatic detection systems with a local alarm should be provided to alert building occupants of an emergency situation.

Studies show that arson rates are climbing among young Americans. While statistics specific to school fires are not maintained, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association estimates that as many as 75 percent are arson-related.

Stopping fires before they start is the best protection. One way to do this is through participation in a community crime prevention organization like WeTip.

WeTip is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and elimination of crime in schools and communities. This organization provides an anonymous, toll-free, 24-hour crime hotline for those who have information about a crime and want to report it without revealing their identities.

Arson prevention is a significant part of the WeTip campaign. Since the beginning of the arson program, WeTip has aided in 268 arrests and 112 convictions. The WeTip School Safety Program focuses on arson prevention as well as other school crimes.

For more info, contact WeTip at (909)987-5005.

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