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When school safety and fire safety collide

The fire service has the opportunity to adapt fire code enforcement to new and emerging threats, including active violence


Emerging threats may change the way we teach students to respond to a fire alarm.


With the Santa Fe school shooting fresh in our minds, the topic of conversation at a recent FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board meeting turned to school violence safety. Students from Santa Fe High School reported hearing a fire alarm, and suspecting a fire drill before discovering a gunman was targeting students.

A conflict that often seems to exist between life safety and fire codes, and efforts to protect our children from violence. In fact, as I have taught response to active violence training from Alaska to Florida, I often hear the same complaint when it comes to securing public buildings, especially schools: “the fire marshal won’t let us do it.”

This is, to say the least, quite a conundrum. On one hand, the fire service has had an excellent track record in protecting children in public schools. The last time a child was killed in a school building fire was Dec. 1, 1958, when a fire broke out in Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago, Ill. So here we are 60 years later, having all but mastered fires in public schools, but we unable to adapt to a new threat; that of active violence. Why is that?

Recognize that the threat has changed

As a chief officer for 20 years, I saw firsthand how rigidly fire codes and life safety codes can be interpreted by code officials. That’s not to say that strict interpretation is wrong, but it certainly makes adapting to new and emerging threats more difficult. So, what happens when school safety and the fire codes collide?

The short answer is confusion; confusion on the part of teachers and administrators trying to keep their children safe; confusion on the part of code officials trying to achieve the same goal utilizing long tested and true policies and procedures; and confusion in the general public who hears the mixed message and is not sure which side to come down on.

I place the onus for solving this problem squarely on the shoulders of the fire service. We need to recognize that the threat to our citizens has changed. We also need to strike that delicate balance between making fire-safe communities and overall safe communities.

There have been several laws passed, and recommendations and guidance forwarded from state fire marshal’s offices across the United States, including Minnesota and Illinois, which seemed to point to allowing some latitude on the part of emergency notifications within a school building. Strategies include non-mandatory evacuation when the fire alarm sounds – instead holding in place until more information can be gathered.

NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code – which provides the latest safety provisions to meet society’s changing fire detection signaling and emergency communication demands – also seems to be tracking in this direction. There is a guidance document associated with NFPA 72 entitled “Emergency communication strategies for buildings” which recognizes the dynamic nature of the changing threat.

Guidance Document: Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

The technical committee for NFPA 72 is focused on providing menus that permit the development of communication strategies based on these different levels of risk for a variety of different hazards and threats.

Interpreting the spirit of fire code

As a code enforcement official in your jurisdiction, you have the responsibility to not only enforce the codes that are on the books currently, but also look for opportunities to adapt those codes to changing threats within your community.

I’ve always used fire codes as I think they were intended; that is as a set of guidelines that will guide you in your decision-making to make your community fire-safe. But if you look at any code, there is a degree of latitude with which the code enforcement official can interpret that code.

The guiding principle I always offered to the code enforcement officials in our organization was to understand the spirit and the intent of the code and let that be your guide, rather than black-letter interpretation.

As a code enforcement official in your community, you’re looked upon as the expert to solve complex problems involving safety. I think given the new threat, that it is imperative we look at the fire code as a set of options to deal with a variety of hazards and not a single, solitary, carved-in-stone source that has to be followed to the letter.

Different options can be considered (e.g., an initial alarm is directed to the principal or school officials’ cell phones, so they can make a call as to whether the building should be evacuated or not).

Other ways we can use our interpretations of fire codes is to change the expectations of what happens when a fire alarm sounds. We have taught every child since the age of five, that when the fire alarm sounds, you line up and you leave the building with your teacher – we’ve even timed how quickly they can get out and those times can reflect in school system grading from state education associations. I think it’s time to rethink that expectation and modify it to meet the threat we are facing today.

Now, instead of evacuating the building, maybe the expectation should be when the fire alarm goes off, everyone lines up against the hard corner of the classroom and then waits for the teacher to give further direction. The hard corner of the classroom is the area that is invisible to someone looking in the window of a locked door. This gives some measure of safety to the occupants of that room from an armed intruder. It also sets the children up to react to what comes next if they know that the expectation is that they are quiet, and they line up in this predetermined space (maybe outlined by tape on the floor). This strategy allows the teacher to adapt to the stimulus that they are receiving and make good informed decisions as to what comes next.

Three pillars of fire code enforcement

I would suggest that code enforcement officials work with public schools and other public building officials to develop a set of strategies and options that can be employed when an emergency strikes. The code enforcement official should operate on the three basic pillars of code enforcement:

  1. Education – First and foremost, we should be educators. We should educate the people in our community as to the importance of fire safety and why the codes help ensure it – in other words, what’s in it for them – because, let’s face it, meeting codes cost money.
  2. Facilitation – Our job as code enforcement officials is not to prevent the building of buildings, instead, it’s to facilitate the development and construction of new buildings in our community that are safe.
  3. Mediation – As the experts in the field, our community looks to us to mediate the conflicts between fire codes and the ability to construct a building in a reasonable amount of time, for a reasonable cost and still maintain safety.

Code enforcement officials need to look at their role, not only in terms of fire safety, but in the growing active violence threat that faces our communities. Fire codes, life safety codes can help us improve safety, but we have to be flexible, we have to understand the spirit and intent of the codes, and apply them with an eye toward the real threats that face our citizens.

Be the catalyst that creates a community that is not only fire safe, but holistically safe.

Chief Rob Wylie is a 29-year fire service veteran who retired as fire chief of the Cottleville FPD in St. Charles County, Missouri. Wylie has served as a tactical medic and TEMS team leader with the St. Charles Regional SWAT team for the past 19 years. He is a certified instructor and teaches at the state, local and national level on leadership, counter-terrorism and TEMS operations. Wylie graduated from Lindenwood University, the University of Maryland Staff and Command School and the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Connect with Wylie on LinkedIn.