Most of us would agree that the injury or death of a child is one of the most difficult types of incidents we can be confronted with. This is for many different reasons.
Perhaps one of the most tragic examples of this played itself out 50 years ago in Chicago, where a daytime school fire killed 92 children and 3 teachers at Our Lady of Angels elementary school.
Much To Be Done
Written in chilling detail, the book “To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire” by David Cowan and John Kuenster gives an often-overwhelming accounting of not only what occurred during the fire, but also an insightful pre-event build up to the historic fire and a heart-wrenching post-event summary of its broad effects.
In a country where many of our older schools still lack sprinkler systems or even reliable and operable fire alarm systems, the hard lessons of the fire still apply in many communities today. The safety of our school children and, therefore, the fire-resistance of the schools that those students are educated in must be foremost among national concerns.
Over the years, however, concerns for our children have manifested and transformed themselves as school shootings, student violence, gangs and acts vandalism and arson against schools captured our attention. But what about the age-old issues of fire safety, especially important while students are present on campus?
From My Experience
In January 1997, our agency responded to a daytime school fire at the Green Oaks elementary school in East Palo Alto, Calif. More than 400 students were in session. The first unit on-scene arrived within minutes of multiple reports of the fire and reported that they had heavy fire showing from the roof of the single-story school wing with a library and two classrooms located on either side, both fully involved in heavy fire.
The magnitude of the fire and its rapid spread seemed almost unbelievable to those of us responding, and many of the firefighters fully expected to find injured, burned or deceased children. As I arrived, I saw orderly lines of students in the playground, all in formation—this, at an under-funded, challenged school in what was, and still is, a very tough neighborhood.
I met with the school principal and was relieved to find that all of the students and staff had been accounted for. Only later would we discover how close they had come to what could have been another tragically fatal school fire.
An undetected electrical fire caused by a defective light fixture ballast had spread into a hidden attic space over the library and all of the classrooms in the school wing. Had it not been discovered by a student who was using the restroom, it certainly would have spread much farther. The student witnessed fire dropping from the ceiling into the library and quickly alerted his teacher. The teacher, somewhat suspicious of report, checked for herself only to find the library well involved in fire. She quickly pulled the fire alarm, but nothing happened. So she began to evacuate her classroom, the wing and the school itself.
Sixty students in classrooms adjacent to the library, 30 on either side, quickly exited their classrooms, leaving behind their belongings as fire broke through the ceilings and rained down fire that quickly engulfed each room. It was later determined that the fire-alarm system was rendered inoperable due to the destruction of alarm wiring that passed through the attic space.
Regulatory Failures Redressed
In California, school fire safety standards are covered within the state’s education code. Simply stated, the inadequate standard only required schools to have a “notification system,” which at the time consisted of a common pull station and local fire alarm system.
After several years of multiple attempts at legislation and with the help from several supportive legislators, in September 2001, we were successful in passing Senate Bill 575, also known as the Green Oaks Bill, which requires the State of California to mandate fire sprinklers systems in all newly constructed schools.
Unfortunately, remodeled or renovated school projects were exempted from the standard. While individual schools could choose to install sprinkler systems, they were not required to do so, and many a new school was built without them to save money. Over the last several years, a number of those schools have burned due to mechanical, accidental or intentionally set fires.
Do the schools in your community have sprinklers and fully functional fire alarm systems? If the answer is no, then are you prepared to deal with a daytime school fire that will challenge not only your tactical fire capabilities but will also present significant accountability and rescue challenges for your agency?
Our Lady of Angels School Fire was a wake-up call that should neither be ignored nor forgotten. Unfortunately, 50 years on, we must work hard to do more in terms of policy and preparation. We must be ready to protect our schools and their most precious resources, the children.