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Fire Safety Lessons from Our Lady of the Angel School Fire

Newspapers are filled with reports of juveniles starting fires in school trashcans and unattended lunchroom stoves that turn into small blazes. But none of these incidents have made headlines like the fire in Chicago's Our Lady of the Angel school in 1958.

Lessons in fire and life safety

Examining Fire Detection and Suppression Requirements

Without a fire detection system and fire-suppressive design, historical data report the school fire spread upwards from the basement to claim the lives of 92 children and three teachers in second-floor classrooms. The devastating incident served as a catalyst for stricter building codes and improved fire and life safety building materials. It also led to a more balanced building and design approach, where design teams incorporate three primary layers of fire protection: 

  • Detection: smoke alarms
  • Suppression: sprinklers and fire extinguishers
  • Building compartmentation: fire- and smoke-blocking materials that divide buildings into compartments

Today, the benefit of fire and life safety advancements is unquestionable: No school fire in the United States has killed more than 10 people since 1958, according to National Fire Protection Association data. But, there is still room for improvement—especially when an average of 14,700 school fires across the nation each year require a fire department response (U.S. Fire Administration).

Building Compartmentation for Fire Safety

School fire safety using building compartmentation

A basic, but important area of fire safety improvement is ensuring schools provide building compartmentation. Fire- and smoke-blocking materials such as masonry, gypsum or fire-rated glass provide a passive back up that supplements alarms and sprinklers. Since these components do not require activation, they provide around-the-clock protection that can help slow the spread of fire, particularly when sprinklers fail to perform as intended.

While code tradeoffs are decreasing the code requirement for building compartmentation in schools, the reality is eliminating any one of these three protection systems weakens the system of inter-connected elements in an effective fire protection plan. The building and design industries learned this lesson through Chicago's Our Lady of the Angel school fire; let's not repeat it.

How do you think we can improve fire safety in schools?