It's back to school time. Time for teachers open their classrooms for the new school year and welcome students back to classes. Soon artwork will cover the walls, student projects will be on display, and lockers will be overflowing with books and supplies. It is also a time for fire inspectors to walk the halls of schools, checking for fire code compliance, operable fire protection systems and maintained egress routes.
Educational occupancies, defined in NFPA 1, Fire Code, as "an occupancy used for educational purposes through the twelfth grade by six or more persons for 4 or more hours per day or more than 12 hours per week" include preschools, elementary schools, high schools, and the like. Colleges and Universities fall under a different occupancy classification and, while might present some similar hazards, should not be protected as educational occupancies. Educational facilities are inspected frequently and kept under a close watch by code officials. The day to day activities of a school can be greatly impacted by a document such as the Fire Code.
Furnishings and Decorations:
One area that inspectors and educational occupancies must play close attention to is furnishings, decorations, and interior finish. NFPA 1 provides the following requirements with respect to these materials:
- Draperies, curtains, and other similar loosely hanging furnishings and decorations have to meet specific performance criteria from NFPA 701.Clothing and other personal supplies cannot be stored in the corridors unless the corridor is sprinklered, has a smoke detection system, or where the supplies are stored in metal lockers that do not interfere with the egress width.
- Clothing hung on hooks along corridor walls or on racks in school lobbies greatly increases the combustible load and will generally allow flame to spread quickly.
- Artwork and teaching materials can be attached to the walls but cannot exceed 20% of the wall area in a non-sprinklered building and cannot exceed 50% of the wall area if the building is fully sprinklered. Because the combustibility of the artwork cannot be effectively controlled, the quantity, in terms of the percentage of wall area covered, is regulated to avoid creating a continuous combustible surface that will spread flame across the room. It may be advantageous not only to limit the quantity of artwork displayed but also to avoid placing such materials near a room’s exit access doors.
Emergency egress and relocation drills are required as mandated specifically by a particular occupancy in Chapter 20 or as deemed necessary by the local AHJ. Requirements for drills are extracted from NFPA 101 but are located in Chapter 10 in NFPA 1 under General Safety Requirements. Fire inspectors play an important role in regulating and managing drills in facilities throughout their jurisdiction, especially in schools. Drills should always be designed and conducted in cooperation with the local authorities as the procedure and details of drills will vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Factors such as occupant demographics and location may all impact the details of the drill.
The purpose of emergency egress and relocation drills is to educate the participants in the fire safety features of the building, the egress facilities available, and the procedures to be followed.Speed in emptying buildings or relocating occupants, while desirable, is not the only objective. Prior to an evaluation of the performance of an emergency egress and relocation drill, an opportunity for instruction and practice should be provided. This educational opportunity should be presented in a nonthreatening manner, with consideration given to the prior knowledge, age, and ability of audience. Additionally, NFPA 1 also addresses frequency, conduct, environment, and documentation for drills.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues facing schools and communities today is maintaining the safety and security of students and staff from a hostile event or unwanted intruder. Chapter 14 of NFPA 1 extracts requirements from NFPA 101 about acceptable door locking arrangements. Inspectors should reference NFPA 101 specifically for new provisions on classroom door locking (see Chapters 14/15 of NFPA 101 and newly issued amendment to the Code that modifies the permitted door locking arrangements.) NFPA offers several valuable resources for fire inspectors and AHJs faced with implementing security provisions in their communities.
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