I’m writing this blog post from 33,000 feet and the person in the seat in front of me is in my lap so it may be a short one.  Feel free to add your 2 cents’ worth in the Comments section below, and we can make this a collaborative piece.  Maybe you know of articles about other school fires that we can link to, or code changes that were made because of a tragic event.  I’d like to illustrate why the current pattern of legislation outside of the established and effective code development process could take us down a dangerous path, by addressing security without adequately considering life safety.

As I mentioned in my recent post called Barricade Device? Think Twice!, fires do occur in schools even though school fire fatalities are no longer common.  While some point to this as evidence that fire code requirements in schools are less important than security concerns, others cite the strength of current codes and enforcement as the reason for the reduction in serious school fires.

Today is the 61st anniversary of a fire at the Cleveland Hill School in Cheektowaga, New York, where 15 students (age 10-12) were killed.  There are PDF articles about this school fire and several others on NFPA’s list of school fires with 10 or more fatalities.

An article in today’s edition of The Buffalo News discusses the effects that this fire had on fire safety:

There are also less obvious – but monumentally important – outcomes from the fire.

Take a close look around the next time you’re in a school building. Notice the fire alarms, extinguishers, rescue windows and frequent drills? They can all be traced back to that fateful day, experts say.

“All of that put together has made our school buildings so safe when it comes to fires,” said David G. Hess, Cleveland Hill’s director of facilities. “That fire has really made a difference.”

The fire touched virtually every aspect of fire safety in schools with new laws and regulations on the placement of windows, halls and doors, and control of heating plants.

Today, Cleveland Hill takes fire safety as seriously as can be.

“I get no pushback or trouble from people who might otherwise give me a hard time about a coffee pot in their classroom or a ceramic heater under their desk,” Hess said.

“They don’t do it because they know what could happen. They’ve seen what disaster can come about from a situation like that.”

Another article in The Buffalo News describes a new exhibit about the tragedy, which “aims to inform, heal, inspire.”  This article illustrates just how little time the students and teachers had to escape the blaze, with the only door blocked by fire:

Late that Wednesday morning in 1954, more than two dozen sixth-grade students were in Melba Seibold’s music class, in a wooden annex of the school, when everybody in the room heard an explosion.

“Immediately your first response was to run to the doorway to see what was going on,” one survivor says in a student-produced documentary titled “Through the Silence,” which is featured in the exhibit. “Almost immediately the doorway was completely engulfed in flame and the smoke was coming into the room.”

Cervi also tells interviewers the flames spread quickly.

“There wasn’t like five, 10 minutes,” he says. “It was 30 seconds to a minute and the smoke and the heat was horrendous. It was just immediate flame. You couldn’t get to the doors. Go to the windows, you couldn’t open them. A couple people broke some things and climbed out. If you didn’t get out within a minute, you didn’t make it.”

Current codes are based on lessons learned in past events, illustrating that we can not afford to sacrifice life safety in favor of less expensive security.  Whether you agree or disagree, join the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

For more information about school safety and security, click the “Schools” tab at the top of this page.


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