Like many fire and life safety studies, “Operation School Burning” was designed to investigate methods for providing a safer environment for occupants during a fire. Where it differs is that the fire tests were conducted in an actual school building. Over the course of a three month testing period, fires were systematically started in stairways, classrooms and corridors and then analyzed. During this process, a Fire Engineering magazine article states: “researchers tested the effectiveness of automatic sprinklers (both partial and complete sprinkler systems), fire curtains, and roof vents in preventing the spread of flames and other products of combustion during fires. The testing also analyzed the usefulness of automatic smoke and heat detectors in and around the stairwells.”
As one of the only studies to simulate how a fire would perform in an operating school (or at least one of the only ones that I’m aware of), its findings continue be of value to the fire-rated glazing industry—even if they are over 50 years old. If you don’t have time to read the full report and fire test conditions, which can be found here, a few key results are highlighted below that were formative in the development of today’s fire and life safety standards.
- During fire tests, comprehensive automatic sprinkler systems helped maintain low heat temperatures throughout the building and reduced the build-up of smoke and irritating gases. Tenable smoke conditions were maintained in all but the two areas closest to the test fire.
- When the test fire was arranged in such a way as to protect against the distribution of sprinkler water, untenable smoke conditions were developed in nearby corridors. The fire was often held in check, but not extinguished by the sprinklers.
- Partial automatic sprinkler systems did not prevent the passage of smoke, even when installe to provide a water curtain between the test fire and school corridors.
- Operating sprinklers helped keep temperatures at a tenable level in school corridors, but unsafe smoke conditions were often reached before the sprinklers activated.
- Enclosed stairways did not provide effective protection against heat and smoke unless the doors were closed and kept closed immediately after the test fires started.
- Automatic detection devices alerted occupants to a fire before untenable smoke conditions were reached, but did not provide enough time to ensure building occupants could safely exit the premise.
Protective building design and fire and life safety codes have come a long way since “Operation School Burning” was completed in 1959. The IBC and NFPA require sprinklers for new educational facilities in all fire areas greater than 20,000 square feet and in every portion of the building below the exit level. They also cover at length fire-resistance-rated construction materials, exits and safe egress for educational facilities. These are undeniable improvements, but we still have a long way to go.
What fire and life safety improvements would you like to see the industry focus on?