Is It Acceptable That No Sprinklers Were Required in Long Island Elementary Schools Destroyed By Fire?

Last month there were two fires in Long Island schools. Just days before there was a fire in Riverhead Charter School, South Bay Elementary School in West Babylon was destroyed by fire, forcing the relocation of its classes to a nearby church.

The school was built in the early 1950s. Fire sprinklers were not required at that time. Since then, updated building codes in New York and other states require sprinklers in school spaces of more than 20,000 square feet. But sprinklers are not required in schools built before the code was changed. In addition, the 20,000 square foot rule is commonly skirted by designing schools in sections that are smaller than 20,000 square feet within fire-resistant walls.

So where does that leave our children? In 1916, the New York State PTA urged the installation of automatic sprinklers in school buildings in addition to existing fire escapes. The National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code, adopted by some states, requires fire sprinklers in basements of all new schools and, with exceptions, in basements of existing schools. As it turns out, the absence of sprinkler systems in public schools is the norm. Surprised? Yet not all experts agree that sprinkler systems should be required.

For example, some contend that it is more important to emphasize equipment and training that clears buildings as rapidly as possible. This is accomplished with fire alarms – required in every school – as well as increasing numbers of smoke alarms and strobe lights that can help students and teachers evacuate smoke-filled buildings. Another less expensive way of preventing fires is through use of heat-detecting systems. In the Sachem, New York, school system, officials are seeking state permission to install electronic monitors that can detect sudden changes in building temperatures.

In New York, the state Education Department is responsible for enforcing the code in regard to schools and reviews all school building plans to determine if they meet the code. New York State (excluding New York City, which is subject to a separate code) requires sprinklers in certain areas of schools, including dressing rooms, storerooms, and workshops, and in exhibit spaces of exhibition buildings with more than 15,000 square feet (Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code 701.4(e) and 774.4).

Fires in schools should not be dismissed as rare events. Every year around 2000 schools in Britain are damaged by fire. Between 70% and 80% of these fires are started deliberately. Fire sprinkler systems in homes are starting to be required. Some legislators across the country (not New York) are mandating installation of fire sprinklers in new construction. New Hampshire has a new rule requiring that all homes built after March 2012 contain a sprinkler system.

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