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Know-How: Fire/Life Safety

Education institutions have strived to make facilities safer and prevent loss of life and property from fire. But more can be done, according to the National Association of State Fire Marshals Catastrophic Fire Prevention Task Force.

“The nature and sheer volume of fuels in schools enhances the potential for the rapid spread of fire,” the task force says.

Among the contents that can feed flames: bulletin boards, maps and other items on walls; upholstered furniture and rugs; and computer equipment. If flames spread through ceiling tiles, items such as cables and insulation may be exposed. Cleaning supplies, art materials and chemicals used in labs can be hazards.

The task force recommends that schools install sprinklers. With this goal in mind, educators and fire-protection groups should conduct “a scientific assessment of the fuel load present in typical school scenarios” and develop standards for sprinkler systems.

At colleges and universities, residence halls are a special concern because sleeping students are especially vulnerable to fire injuries.

“Misuse of cooking appliances, overloaded electrical circuits and extension cords increase the risk of fires,” the U.S. Fire Administration says in “Fire Safety 101,” a fact sheet for colleges and universities.

The agency also warns that alcohol abuse often is a factor in campus fires; it can impair one's judgment and hamper evacuation efforts.

Other factors that may contribute to fires in student housing:

  • Improper use of 911 notification systems delays emergency response.

  • Apathy may leave many students unaware of the risk of fire.

  • Students may choose to ignore a fire alarm and decide not to evacuate.

  • Lack of planning and preparation results in delayed evacuations.

  • Students are not alerted to a fire because of vandalized or damaged smoke and fire alarms.

To prevent fires in residence halls, the Fire Administration says schools should:

  • Create and update detailed floor plans of buildings, and make them available to emergency personnel, resident advisers and students.

  • Install smoke alarms in every residence hall room.

  • Maintain and regularly test smoke- and fire-alarm systems; replace smoke-alarm batteries every semester.

  • Conduct fire drills, and practice escape routes and evacuation plans.

  • Regularly inspect rooms and buildings for fire hazards. Make sure students do not overload electrical outlets or misuse extension cords.

  • Inspect exit windows and doors to make sure they are working properly.



Percentage of middle and high school structure fires whose origin was incendiary or suspicious, 2002.


Number of injuries per 1,000 “non-adult-school” (daycare through high school) structure fires, 2002.


Percentage of non-adult-school structure fires in 2002 that occurred in middle, junior high or senior high schools.


Percentage of non-adult-school structure fires that originated in a bathroom, 2002.

Source: National Fire Incident Reporting System

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