Fire and Guns

Public safety codes and the risk of fire alarm pulls during mass shootings

This article may ultimately be more like a message from a bully pulpit than a teaching tool, but there are ample lessons to be learned from a series of school shootings across our nation. Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkdale, Florida, was one of the latest. It is perhaps especially heinous because the alleged perpetrator was believed to have pulled the fire alarm in a hallway to bring more potential victims into his sights.

This horrible incident points to a very serious issue for overall community public safety: the sometimes-competing interests for safety from fire and other security issues like mass shootings.

In our worst nightmares, we could not envision the scenario I just described when the fire codes first focused on school fire safety. Many alive today remember the tragic school fire that occurred at Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago, Illinois, on December 1, 1958. Ninety-two school children and three nuns perished in that fire. That incident, like so many other fire tragedies before, led to improvements in the fire and building codes for fire safety—especially for exiting and alarm requirements.

Those threats still exist today. But Parkdale teaches us, yet again, that fire is not like a gunman intent on killing and harming victims. Fire does what it does. It is not deliberate, unless someone sets it for that purpose. Its behavior is often predictable in many ways. The process of thinking used to prevent fires from happening in the first place, or mitigating damage when they do occur, is different from the gunman scenario.

The Challenge

We typically think about building compartmentalization to confine fire spread, alarm systems to provide early detection, fire sprinklers to help confine and suppress the fire or keep it manageable until firefighters can arrive, and exiting to make sure everyone can get out safely.

And there’s the rub: Exiting is number one for fire safety but sheltering in place is the priority when a gunman (I say man deliberately here) is stalking a school looking for victims. So how do we manage that conflict of legitimate interest? Well, there are lessons here for fire code managers and the people who manage them.

Recent online discussions on the topic among fire code managers have provided a great variety of ideas and opinions. Disable the pull stations in the hallways? OK, for sure if the school has fire sprinklers. But what if it doesn’t? Do we try for an alternate method, like a centralized pull station and communication system to alert the person in the front office who has the pull station that there is a fire in the building? And what about exiting? Get the kids out quick? Or have the teachers look in the hallway first to make sure it is safe for children to exit?

What about surprise fire drills? Do they help or hinder the overall issue? If kids are to practice drills so they know what to do, is there harm in letting them know it’s a practice, so that when the alarm goes off they know it’s not a drill?

Code Provisions

It’s a very real problem, so fire service leaders need to understand the complexity of the issue and what pressure their code managers face in this dilemma. But here’s another.

Every time your fire code manager chats with others about what to do and tries to figure out how to vary from the code, some risk is involved. The code cannot be all black and white—that is not practical. That is why there are provisions for considering alternate methods and materials to meet the same fire safety goals.

And that is what will give fire code managers the flexibility they need to address the conflict between fire safety and security from a mad gunman. And that concern is not just in schools. Anywhere people congregate is where these issues will come up. Local code managers will have flexibility, and what they also need is support.

Having state, regional, or national discussions about how these situations should be handled benefits every local code manager by giving them something to work with rather than just their own opinion. That is too often challenged by someone in the community who doesn’t agree with them anyway. It will help them protect themselves and their local jurisdictions from the liability that comes along with making a bad guess about what to do.

Continuing Conversation

I don’t have the answers, and there are a lot of people in the field who don’t either. So, we can look to our state fire marshals, our state fire service organizations, our national code promulgating organizations, and a collective thought process that can take advantage of expertise from a variety of areas to find some common and logical ground.

I’m not saying that those efforts are not being done. I’m saying it’s time to support your local code managers in their efforts to participate in those discussions so that we collectively benefit. And if these discussions are not happening in your area, they need to be—all the time, not just when the news media and public attention are pointed in our direction. You need reasonable, thoughtful people as code managers, and you need to support them and their ability to look outside your own community for answers.

To read more from Jim Crawford, visit www.firefighternation.com/author/jim-crawford.

By Jim Crawford

Jim Crawford, FIFireE, is project manager for Vision 20/20 and a retired fire marshal and deputy chief of the Vancouver (WA) Fire Department. He is a member of the NFPA technical committee on professional qualifications for fire marshals, a former member of the Standards Council for the NFPA, a fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, a life member of the IAFC, and past president of the International Fire Marshal’s Association. Crawford is the author of Fire Prevention Organization and Management and is an editorial board member of FireRescue. He has received the R. Wayne Powell Excellence in Fire Prevention Award, the Dr. Anne Phillips award for leadership in fire and life safety education from the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the International Fire Service Training Association, the “Fire Protection Person of the Year” from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and the Percy Bugby Award from the International Fire Marshal’s Association.

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