Local schools ahead of state average for sprinkler systems
Westhampton Fire Chief Chris Norris, standing outside Westhampton Elementary School Thursday, thinks a sprinkler system should be installed at the school.
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Westhampton Fire Chief Chris Norris stands near one-hour fire doors Thursday at Westhampton Elementary School. The school also has fire extinguishers, pull-down fire alarms and smoke detectors, but no sprinkler system, which Norris thinks should be installed.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
WESTHAMPTON — When an August lightning strike set the Rowe Elementary School ablaze, it also lit a fire under Westhampton Fire Chief Christopher Norris.
For years Norris had been considering a proposal to add an automated fire-suppression sprinkler system to the Westhampton Elementary School, but it wasn’t until the Franklin County school was destroyed that he contacted his local school principal and started a conversation. In addition to protecting children, a sprinkler system would also safeguard the town’s investment in the 21-year-old school building — a pivotal meeting space for the community.
“I’m a huge advocate for any sprinkler system in residential homes or places of assembly or educational institutions,” Norris said. “When you look across the state or the country and look at statistics in terms of life safety ... any occupancy that has a sprinkler system has far less fatalities and/or injuries than occupancies without it.”
Under a 15-year-old state law, sprinkler systems are required in schools, but because the statute was not retroactive, only new and extensively renovated buildings must install them. This has led to slow adaptation of the safety measure. Of the state’s public schools, two-thirds do not have sprinklers, according to a report by Commonwealth Magazine.
In 2010 there were 208 public school fires in Massachusetts. About one out of every nine schools experienced a fire, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Fire Safety.
Last Tuesday, a two-alarm fire at the vocational high school in Wakefield significantly damaged the carpentry shop and school roof in addition to sending smoke through the building. The school closed for the week while cleanup crews restored the building. Officials estimate the fire caused about $500,000 in damage.
Sprinklers would have helped contain the fire and made it easier to tackle, said the town’s fire chief, Michael Sullivan. “Obviously, not having a sprinkler system made a difference,” he told a reporter for Wicked Local: Melrose.
Locally, the percentage of schools with sprinkler systems exceeds the state average. The Gazette checked on the presence of public school sprinkler systems in 11 communities: Amherst, Belchertown, Chesterfield, Easthampton, Hadley, Hatfield, Pelham, Northampton, Southampton, Westhampton and Williamsburg. Among the 35 schools in these towns, 26 percent have full sprinkler systems; 31 percent have partial sprinkler systems (meaning only part of a building or certain rooms have sprinklers); and 43 percent have no sprinkler system at all.
The biggest obstacle to getting sprinkler systems in all schools is the cost, local fire and school officials say.
The systems are expensive to install — especially in existing buildings. Many communities still reeling from the Great Recession have to weigh spending on safety against probability and other town priorities. Sprinklers can cost about $6.50 to $8 per square foot to install in a school, according to industry experts cited in Commonwealth Magazine’s investigative piece, “Fire Drill.” That means that outfitting the 108,000-square-foot Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst with a full sprinkler system could cost $702,000 to $1.4 million.
And that’s without complications.
A system can cost as much as $25 per square foot depending on variables such as whether the water pipes will be hidden and the availability of water pressure. Maintaining the systems can be expensive as well. Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton has had its sprinkler system’s motor pump replaced twice since 2002, with the most recent repair in 2011 costing $95,000.
“I’m on the fence about it,” Westhampton Elementary School Principal Deane Bates said of installing a sprinkler system. “I’m in favor of anything that keeps our students safe, but I also understand that a little town like Westhampton has to balance fiscal needs with the town’s ability to meet those needs.
“The fact of the matter is we have 160 kids here and they can get out of the building in under 10 seconds — it’s ridiculously quick,” Bates said.
What the law requires
In 1997, Massachusetts legislators passed a law requiring new school buildings to include automated sprinkler systems. It also requires schools undergoing an extensive renovation to install sprinklers, but this part of the law didn’t go into effect until 2008.
For the most part, if a school was built before 2000 or renovated before 2008 in Hampshire County, it does not contain a full sprinkler system — except in Easthampton.
Easthampton’s three elementary schools — which were built between the early 1900s and the 1930s — are unique in that they are old yet have full sprinkler systems. Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said the sprinklers were installed decades ago to make the schools safer.
“Pepin School’s sprinklers were put in in the 1950s, and the older schools, we think they were put in earlier in the 1900s,” Follansbee said.
Easthampton’s new high school, which is being built on the same site as the current high school, will have a full sprinkler system. This will make White Brook Middle School the only public school in the city without a full set of sprinklers. White Brook, like about one-third of the area’s other public schools, has a partial sprinkler system. Its automated fire suppression systems are installed in the hallways and on the stage in the auditorium. Other schools, such as New Hingham Regional Elementary School in Chesterfield, have sprinklers in the boiler room, custodian closets and kitchen, but not in the classrooms, hallways or bathrooms.
Partial sprinkler systems attempt to target areas where fires are most likely to start.
In 2010, 45 percent of public school fires in Massachusetts were cooking fires, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System, and 25 percent were indoor rubbish fires in which the cause was not known. Other causes included problems with heating systems (13 percent) and arson (9 percent).
“Sprinkler systems have proven their value over and over again,” said Northampton Assistant Fire Chief Duane Nichols. “But we do understand there is a cost to going in and retrofitting buildings for sprinklers ... You have to be aware of that and it can affect where sprinklers go.”
Another consideration is the fact that while sprinkler systems can contain a fire and reduce property damage, they can also cause water damage. In a national study comparing cost damages between sprinklered and non-sprinklered buildings in 2002-04, the average estimated damage per fire for a sprinklered building was $31,700; without sprinklers the damage went up to $49,500.
“What would you rather have, fire damage or water damage?” Nichols asked.
Amherst Fire Chief W. Tim Nelson said most schools already have a strong fire protection system because of the way they are constructed and the numerous fire drills and safety inspections conducted throughout the year.
“Sprinklers are there for rapid knockdown of a fire,” Nelson said, “but it’s really just a small part of the overall fire safety system.”
Joseph DiFranco, vice president of the Fire Prevention Association of Massachusetts Inc. and fire inspector in Peabody, made similar comments. He said the lack of deaths in school fires is evidence that the state’s safety measures are effective.
“Having sprinklers in schools is not necessary because other safety systems are in effect,” he said. “Children in schools are so well-versed in drilling and getting out of the school if a fire alarm goes — the fact is, there hasn’t been a death in a school fire in a long time. But from a fire-prevention standpoint, is a school without sprinklers safer than a school with sprinklers? No.”
While sprinklers are only one component of a school’s fire safety plan — which must include regular inspections of equipment and at least four fire drills per year — they are the most effective in limiting damage and containing fires, according to fire safety experts.
In Rowe, approximately 80 children are being educated at the Hawlemont Regional Elementary School in Charlemont this year while town officials figure out how to rebuild Rowe Elementary School, which had no sprinklers.
Westhampton Fire Chief Norris said if that town’s elementary school was destroyed, it would be a struggle to come up with the millions of dollars necessary to construct a new building.
“In a community like Westhampton,” he said, “if that structure was lost to a fire it would cripple the community ... in terms of education. But also being lost would be a place of assembly.”