During the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, the gunman activated a manual fire alarm and shot at students as they left the building. The alarm promoted confusion during the calamity, in part because there had been a fire drill earlier in the day.
It's not the first time a fire alarm has played a role in an active shooter scenario. Twenty years ago, a similar tactic was used at the Westside Middle School shooting in Jonesborough, Ark. A fire alarm also was pulled at Columbine High School during the 1998 massacre. The concern is not new.
Alternatives To Manual-Pull Fire Alarms
Manual pull fire alarms also present other problems, especially nuisance alarms. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has addressed the problem for more than a decade in its Life Safety Standards, which allow for the elimination of manual pull alarms as long as there are other measures that provide the same benefits.
“We have had a provision to relieve schools from having to install pull boxes in common areas for 12 to 15 years,” says Robert Solomon, Director for Building Fire Protection and Systems at NFPA. “Many school administrators don’t realize we have given them alternatives.”Many school administrators don’t realize we have given them alternatives”
Alternatives include use of smoke detectors, automatic sprinklers, and/or locating pull stations in school administration or office areas.
NFPA Life Safety Code
The NFPA Life Safety Code was created in 1911 and has been updated every three years since then. Committees that include architects, engineers, code consultants, manufacturers, testing labs, and universities meet periodically to discuss what changes are needed. In fact, the committees are meeting this summer in Minneapolis to discuss the next version of the Life Safety Code.
NFPA manages the code but has no authority to enforce it. State policy makers and legislative bodies (and some municipalities) adopt various versions of the code as local requirements. Which version of the NFPA Life Safety Code has been adopted in a locality determines how much flexibility there is to eliminate pull station alarms. Allowances to eliminate them have been included since 2006. However, some localities are still using earlier versions of the code, in which case a change in the law would be required to provide the additional flexibilities.
The 2018 Life Safety Code allows the elimination of manual pull stations in some circumstances
NFPA And Manual-Pull Fire Alarms
Sections in the code address issues and concerns related to new construction (Chapter 14) and existing occupancy (Chapter 15). In the case of existing facilities, a school administrator could act to phase out manual pull stations in common areas as long as the move is allowed under the code version (year) that the jurisdiction has adopted. For example, a jurisdiction still operating under the 2000 code could not eliminate pull stations unless the local jurisdiction adopted a more recent version of the code.
The 2018 Life Safety Code allows the elimination of manual pull stations if:
- Interior corridors are protected by smoke detectors in accordance with the code;
- Auditoriums, cafeterias, and gymnasiums are protected by heat-detection devices or other approved detection devices;
- Workshops and laboratories with dust and vapor are protected by heat-detection devices or other approved detection devices; and
- There is a provision at a central point to manually activate the evacuation signal or to evacuate only affected areas.
Manual pull alarms can also be eliminated if there is a sprinkler system with a pressure sensor that activates an alarm when the water starts to flow.No student has died in a school fire in the United States since 1958
Another measure schools can adopt is to install a cover for the pull station that sounds a local horn if it is lifted to gain access to the manual fire alarm box. This approach is a deterrent and alerts local personnel before a full-blown fire alarm is activated. A security camera installed near an alarm can also be activated when the alarm is pulled.
School Fire Risk
No student has died in a school fire in the United States since 1958 when the Our Lady of Angels School fire in Chicago claimed 92 fatalities. (Chicago did not use the NFPA Life Safety Code at the time.) The tragic fire was a wakeup call to pay more attention to school fire risks. Since 1958, the level of planning, training and systems that have been installed in schools (including use of the NFPA Life Safety Code) has paid dividends in student safety.
Today, it is more likely a student will die at the hands of an active shooter than in a fire. That reality has driven the need to adapt provisions of the Life Safety Code. For example, door-locking options need to allow for school lockdowns while still enabling safe exit during a fire. Some door-locking or barricade devices on the market do not adhere to code requirements. A section on “classroom door locking to prevent entry” is included in the 2018 edition of the code.
Raising Awareness Of Life Safety Codes
Awareness is a challenge for NFPA. While code officials or architect/engineers may be familiar with Life Safety Code requirements, that awareness may not extend to busy school administrators. NFPA is working to communicate code requirements to this group, including development of one-page executive summaries that make complex code requirements more digestible. “Policy makers should understand they have an obligation to review code provisions and work toward staying more current on codes,” says Solomon.
Alarms activated during an active shooter event are a variation on a problem that has plagued pull-station alarms for years – the issue of nuisance alarms. It’s a scary and potentially deadly new angle on an age-old problem, but one the NFPA Life Safety Code has already been addressing.