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Fire Prevention

I. The Issue:

While conducting our environmental, health and safety assessment of the local schools, we identified a variety of fire safety issues and concerns. We have not initiated a standardized or regimented review of each school specifically looking for fire safety concerns. Instead, we have endeavored to resolve the problems as each was noted and identified. The following is a summary of the concerns we have noted to date as well as the corrective action suggested or implemented. During the course of these activities we have relied upon the fire prevention guidance prepared by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Massachusetts Fire Marshall's Office.

II. Observations made:

System wide concerns:

1. We noted that a great deal of confusion existed regarding who was responsible for inspecting and maintaining fire extinguishers. As a result, we found that a number of the units were missing or had not been inspected or recharged in several years. Standard guidance recommends or requires that all portable fire extinguishers be inspected and maintained at least annually.

2. Another problem noted involving fire extinguishers was that access to a number of these units was restricted by the placement of equipment or material in front of the device. As a result, some of the units were either concealed or virtually impossible to reach in the event of an emergency. Standard guidance recommends or requires that access be maintained at all times to all portable fire extinguishers. This is commonly interpreted to mean a clear and unobstructed path of approximately 2 to 3 feet in width. A sign or symbol should also be posted above the unit to indicate the presence of the unit. In addition, each extinguisher should be mounted at approximately three above the ground.

3. While reviewing the fire extinguishers present in the local schools, we also noted that a number of the units were not rated and approved for the types of fires that could occur in that particular area. This suggested the need for purchasing and maintaining multifaceted fire extinguishers capable for use against a broad variety of fires.

4. A significant oversight noted was that none of the staff reported that they had ever been trained in the proper use and operation of a fire extinguisher. Standard guidance suggests or requires that all potential operators be provided with initial and annual refresher training in the use and operation of portable fire extinguishers. We have recommended that the School Department identify staff members with the greatest risk of needing to use an extinguisher and that these individuals be provided with the necessary training.

5. Fire safety concerns were noted at all schools with regard to the storage and maintenance of hazardous materials. These problems were related to 1) the storage of flammable and combustible materials in close proximity to an ignition source, 2) the joint storage of incompatible materials which if combined could spontaneously combust or explode, 3) the storage of open containers of flammable and combustible liquids, and 4) the bulk storage of large quantities of flammable or combustible materials without the use of flammable storage cabinets or comparable protective measures. A review of the chemical inventory present at the schools commonly indicated that many of the flammable and combustible materials were either obsolete or could be readily consumed somewhere within the school system. As a result, improved chemical management and inventory consolidation enabled us to reduce a number of these problems at minimal cost. The conversion from petroleum based cleaning and maintenance materials to water based materials also significantly reduced the volume of flammable and combustible materials present at local schools.

6. Another significant fire safety concern has been the accumulation and long term storage of a variety of paper, wood, cardboard and other combustible materials. In many areas these materials are stacked from the floor to the ceiling. The presence of these materials represents a large volume of fuel should a fire occur at the schools. Improved housekeeping and materials management could alleviate the risk posed by these materials.

7. Another safety hazard noted has been the use of equipment with damaged electrical cords and the possible overloading of electrical circuits caused the increased use of electrical equipment. These observations suggest that an electrical short could cause a fire to occur.

Facilities Maintenance Department:

The department maintains a central supply warehouse at the local high school. All school department supplies are stored and maintained in bulk quantities at this location prior to being distributed to the local schools. Inspections of this storage area have resulted in the following observations.

1. More than 350 gallon of methanol based duplicating fluid were found stored in this area. Methanol is a class A flammable which means that it is as flammable as gasoline. The material was stored in metal 1-gallon containers without the use of any additional fire protection. NFPA and OSHA guidance recommends that if you maintain more than 60 gallons of a class A flammable then the material should be stored in an approved double walled flammable storage cabinet or comparable fire resistant structure. A review of our consumption of the material indicated that our inventory represented at least an 85 year supply for a declining technology. We reduced the fire hazard posed by this material by reducing our inventory to 50 gallons.

2. Another issue noted was the commingled storage of incompatible materials throughout the warehouse. Materials have been historically stored wherever space was available when the item arrived. A chemical fire in this area in 1991, which resulted in the mixing of bleach, ammonia, and sulfuric acid based drain cleaner, clearly identified the potential problems associated with this practice. However, neither the $500,000 cost of that hazardous materials incident nor the completion of additional hazardous materials handling training has been able to provide the motivation or incentive to modify the departmental storage practices so that some consideration is given to storing materials by hazard category. A lesson that could be taken from industry is that many businesses are now delegating the responsibility and liability for bulk chemical storage to their suppliers by keeping their chemical inventory to a bear minimum and ordering materials as they are consumed. This practice offers the most efficient and cost effective means for safely managing a chemical inventory while also reducing the risk of overstocking materials that may need to be disposed of as hazardous waste at some future date. This could be another useful approach for minimizing the hazards posed by a chemical inventory.

3. Initially, many of the cleaning and maintenance supplies present in the chemical inventory were petroleum based materials. As a result, most of these materials were either flammable or combustible. We reduced this hazard by consuming these materials and by replacing them with water based substitutes which were none flammable. An additional benefit of this approach was that the replacement materials generated fewer emissions when used and as a result had less of an impact on indoor air quality in comparison to the original products.

4. Another problem noted was that access to fire extinguishers is routinely obstructed by the placement of goods and materials during warehouse activities. This continues to be a housekeeping issue. The creation of areas where materials storage was not allowed and the placement of fire extinguishers in these areas could help to alleviate this problem.

High School Science Department:

1. A significant fire hazard noted in the High School science area was the open storage of a large volume of flammable, combustible, and peroxide forming (potentially explosive) materials in the classrooms and laboratories. This problem was compounded further by the joint storage of oxidizers, corrosives and other reactives with these materials. As a result, accidental mixing of incompatible materials could easily have occurred and resulted in a fire or explosion. Even if the concern for the incompatible materials was ignored, the sheer volume of flammable and combustible chemicals posed a fire safety concern. We have addressed these problems by significantly reducing the size of the chemical inventory, and by eliminating and disposing of many of the extremely hazardous or obsolete materials. We have also improved chemical storage by removing the chemicals from the individual classrooms and laboratories, and consolidating these materials based on hazard class within a re-enforced chemical storage locker and several double-walled chemical storage cabinets.

2. An oversight noted during our review was that the school department did not possess a class D fire extinguisher for use against fires involving burning metals. Due to the continued use of combustible metals in the local curriculum, we have recommended that the science department be equipped with at least one class D extinguisher.

3. The science area has been constructed with a re-enforced chemical storage locker or closet for the bulk storage of the chemical inventory maintained by the department. This area has been equipped with a fire suppression system. Unfortunately, during our review we noted that the fire suppression system had not been routinely inspected and serviced to ensure its proper function. We have recommended that this system be inspected and tested on at least an annual basis.

4. A review of the science area determined that nearly all of the rooms in this area are constructed with gas jets. We have noted concerns regarding the possibility that a prankster could turn on the gas jets in an unoccupied room and thus create a serious fire or explosion hazard in the school. We also noted that each room is equipped with a main gas shut off. We have recommended that the gas be shut off and locked out when not in use as a means to prevent the accidental release of natural gas in these areas.

High School Art Department :

1. The presence of flammable solvents in the art department poses a fire hazard. Fortunately, the department maintains only a small amount of these materials on hand at any given time. In addition, these materials are stored in a cabinet designed for the storage of flammables when not in use. As a result, the proper use and management of these materials have been effective in mitigating the hazard posed by these materials.

2. We have also noted concerns related to the possibility of electrical short circuiting associated with computer graphics equipment and kilns maintained by the department. Our concern is that the electrical wiring provided in this area was not designed and constructed in consideration of the possible use of this type of equipment. As a result, there is concern that the system may be overloaded and result in a fire. The school department is currently having a licensed electrician review these issues.

Home Economics :

A review of the exhaust fans used by the Home Economics classes has found that a number of these units are clogged with grease. The presence of grease increases the likelihood that one of these units could catch fire. The implementation of a routine maintenance and cleaning plan has alleviated the risk of a fire involving these units.

III. Resources:

When reviewing these issues, I relied heavily on the information and assistance offered by the National Fire Protection Association, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Massachusetts Fire Marshall's Office. Each agency offered a broad variety of information related to the use and maintenance of fire extinguishers, the proper storage of chemical materials, and the identification and correction of electrical hazards.

They can all be contacted via the Internet.

National Fire Protection Association http://www.nfpa.org Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer
Occupational Safety and Health Administration http://www.osha.gov Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer
Massachusetts Fire Marshall's Office http://www.mass.gov/ Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer

prepared by Todd H. Dresser, Environmental Engineer
(formerly of)
Burlington Board of Health, 29 Center Street, Burlington, MA 01803


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