The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.....  ...Henry de Bracton.
Commentary of the Day - March 2, 2000: Penny wise and pound foolish - school fire safety:
The Irascible Professor was both surprised and shocked to learn that current California building codes do not require either smoke alarms or sprinkler systems in new school construction or in major school modernization projects.  According to an article by Julie Lynem in the San Francisco Chronicle, only manual pull-box fire alarms are mandated by California building codes for new school buildings.  Assemblyman Ted Lempert, whose district includes the city of Palo Alto, is trying for the third time to push a bill through the California Legislature that would require the installation of automatic fire detection systems (smoke or heat detectors), automatic alarms, and sprinkler systems in newly constructed or modernized school buildings.

Lempert's two previous bills won strong bipartisan support in the legislature, but were vetoed by our previous governor, Pete Wilson.  Wilson's rejected the bills, which would have provided state support for the fire safety equipment, as being too expensive.  Wilson's budget analyst, according to the San Francisco Chronicle story, stated that no children had lost their lives in school fires in California.  However, fire officials in East Palo Alto cite the case of the Green Oaks Academy fire in 1997, in which an entire wing of the school burned to the ground.  In this incident children escaped from the building with only seconds to spare.

The Irascible Professor would like remind our readers that not all school children have been so lucky.  In 1958 a fire at the Our Lady of Angels school in Chicago claimed the lives of 90 children and three nuns.  In the wake of this disaster the city of Chicago changed its municipal code to require, among other fire safety measures, the installation of automatic sprinklers and automatic alarm systems connected directly to the fire department in all school buildings.

The number of school fires in California is surprisingly large.  Each year there are about 2000 such incidents.  Many of these fires are caused by arson.  Because of the lack of automatic alarms and sprinkler systems, fires that start after school hours frequently cause major damage before they are discovered.

The state's share of the cost to equip new schools with smoke detectors and automatic alarms is estimated to be about $37 million, and another $100 million would be required to install sprinklers.  While this may seem like a large sum of taxpayer money, it should be remembered that at least part of this cost will be recovered in reduced expenditures to repair fire-damaged school buildings.  In addition, fire sprinklers are life savers.  No person has ever died in a fire in a building in the United States that has been properly equipped with sprinklers.  If the life of one child or teacher is spared because of the installation of smoke detectors, automatic alarm systems, and sprinklers in school buildings, then the money will have been well spent!

If you are a California resident, send email to Governor Gray Davis asking him to support Assembly member Lempert's bill.  In addition, send email to your assembly member and your state senator asking them to support Mr. Lempert's bill.  If you live elsewhere, check with your local fire department or school district to determine what fire safety measures are in place in your child's school.

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©2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.