The infamous Seton Hall University fire of 2000 was back in the news this past January. The two young men responsible for the blaze were sentenced to prison after seven years of legal wrangling. Started intentionally in a student lounge, the fire quickly spread to become the worst residence-hall fire in U.S. history — three were killed, and 54 were injured.
For as much media attention as that fire drew, it hardly was an isolated incident. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in an average year, 2,200 residence-hall fires occur across the nation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says that the total number of fires in education facilities each year is about 14,000. Although the price in terms of lives and injuries can never be calculated, the hard cost to schools in property damage amounts to $220 million a year.
Balanced fire protection
What makes campus fire protection such a challenge is the unique dynamic of a student population. Nearly half of all school fires are the result of deliberate arson or foolish experimentation with fire by students. Fire-protection plans need to take into consideration the somewhat unpredictable behavior of the occupants.
In the case of Seton Hall, fire safety was almost entirely reliant on smoke detectors. Yet, according to Associated Press reports, the alarms in the hall were known to go off sporadically for no reason. With 18 false alarms the previous semester, residents learned to tune out the noise. When the alarms sounded the night of the fire, some students assumed it was one more false alarm and chose to ignore it. And the facility did not have sprinklers, which could have offered a second line of defense.
Planning needs to be more comprehensive and progressive. To provide adequate safety, a good fire-protection program must have three primary elements:
- Fire detection and suppression
These are the most obvious components. Detection is the realm of fire detectors and smoke alarms, the early-warning systems that encourage evacuation.
Suppression takes response to the next level. Extinguishers and sprinklers are installed with a goal of suppressing a blaze before firefighters reach the scene.
Many schools go no further in their thinking than those two levels of protection. Some put as much faith in sprinklers as Seton Hall did in fire alarms. But that may not be enough.
Both sprinklers and alarms are “active” systems. In order to work properly, they must be triggered, and they must be supplied with power or water. This leaves them vulnerable to error. What if a maintenance worker shuts off a water valve? What if batteries run down? What if a power outage occurs? What if sprinkler heads are painted over? Or what if the alarms go off and no one pays attention?
Sprinklers and alarms save lives and dramatically reduce the risks associated with fire, and they should be installed strategically and widely. However, when they are less than 100 percent effective, it is critical to have other systems in place that can aid in the compartmentation of the fire and smoke.
This is the process of dividing a building into smaller units using fire-resistant construction materials. Fire-rated windows, ceiling tiles, sheet rock, doors and other materials act as physical barriers that can keep a fire in a restricted space and prevent it from spreading too quickly. These “passive” fire-rated materials are on the job around the clock; they require no activation, and they can provide much-needed time for evacuation and for firefighters to get into the building safely.
One important material in compartmentation is fire-rated glass, which can be found in doors, sidelites, transoms or windows.
Fire-rated walls may have glass for many reasons: glass allows light farther into the building, provides greater visibility for people entering and exiting a space, and may offer more aesthetic appeal than a solid cinder block wall. Fire-rated glass most commonly is installed in corridors, lobbies, stairwells and other areas of a building that might become an escape route during a fire.
Fire-rated glass has a proven track record of stopping flames and smoke. Standard float glass shatters at temperatures above 250°F (which structural fires surpass quickly). When the glass falls out of a frame, fire and smoke have a clear path to migrate throughout a building. Fire-rated glass can withstand temperatures as high as 1,600°F or beyond.