Practice simple fire-prevention rules.
One early morning last April, a laptop at Advanced Technologies Academy in Las Vegas short-circuited, started smoldering, and set off the school's smoke alarm. Although the laptop never caught on fire, smoke damage to the magnet public high school was estimated between $30,000 and $40,000.
The number of school fires has dramatically decreased over the past decades-from an estimated 15,060 in 1980 to 5,480 in 2009-according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Still, school administrators can be more proactive about prevention, says Timothy R. Szymanski, a public education and information officer at Las Vegas Fire and Rescue and Nevada representative for the National Fire Protection Association.
For instance, the technology that crowds most of today's classrooms can pose a risk. Laptops should be unplugged overnight, Szymanski says. Schools can recharge extra batteries during the day, when staff can check on them. Districts should also ensure that older school buildings are equipped with fire sprinklers.
But, he cautions, "sprinklers are not made to conserve property; they're made to buy time, to hold the fire in check and allow people to escape the building."
A good preventive starting place for administrators is to decrease the number of ignition sources in each building. Some examples:
- Prohibit microwaves in classrooms.
- Use power strips that contain a circuit breaker and surge protector, which will shut down equipment if there's a circuit overload and prevent surges, which can cause fires.
- Buy appropriate extension cords. They should be twice as long as the cord connected to the machine.
- Unplug equipment that isn't being used.
- If you must use space heaters, buy models with a trip switch so that if they accidentally fall over, they shut off.
- Store paints and other flammable materials in fire-resistant cabinets.
- Include fire safety as part of teacher orientations.
Szymanski also suggests "shaking staff up" during fire drills. Tell them to imagine a door is blocked, he says, or a hallway is full of smoke, forcing them
to identify alternate escape routes.
Unfortunately, he says, many teachers and other staffers are unfamiliar with the fire prevention strategies addressed in his workshops. "Nobody taught them," he says, encouraging administrators to take the lead.
Eliminate Needless Hazards*
1. Don't cover doors, door frames, or more than 20 percent of walls (or 50 percent for buildings that have automatic sprinklers) with student artwork. Flames can spread up walls and ceilings very quickly.
2. Check electrical outlets for fire hazards. Are multiple extension cords plugged into the same socket?
3. Remove excess trash and promote periodic housecleaning.
4. Ensure that bookcases or other objects do not block escape windows in classrooms.
5. Remove snow and debris that may block emergency doors.
*Source: Ron Cote, principal life safety code engineer, National Fire Protection Association