Who Fights Fires?

WhoFightsFiresEver receive an email and all of a sudden wonder whether you made a really big mistake?
This happened the other day as a school renovation project wrapped up. A board member, superintendent and local fire official included me on a discussion about portable fire extinguishers. I had read the emails while making breakfast. The small school had a couple on hand from before the renovation. They were planning on purchasing more. We had not included portable fire extinguishers in our bid documents. Was that an error?

Should we also practice going to get the fire extinguisher before the alarm goes off?

On the way in to work, I tried to remember specific code sections in the NFPA 101 governing the requirements for fire extinguishment. Could educational facilities really be free from fire extinguisher requirements? I have worked on a number of school projects. I remember many of these having extinguishers. College buildings are in general business occupancies, and businesses require fire extinguishers. Surely education and assembly do, too? Perhaps we did not need fire extinguishers because we had sprinklered the building?
When I got to work, I checked the NFPA 101 chapters on new education and assembly. There were no requirements for fire extinguishers. Thinking the 101 waived the requirement for fire extinguishers in new buildings that would probably be sprinklered, I checked the chapters for existing occupancies. Still no requirement. Chapter 9, Fire Protection, referred me back to the occupancy chapters.
I then headed to the new and existing business occupancy chapters. Yes, there in paragraph 3.5 was the requirement for fire extinguishers. I double checked the education and assembly chapters. Their paragraphs 3.5 had no fire extinguisher requirement (The NFPA 101 does a good job providing consistent paragraph numbering in the occupancy chapters, making it easy to compare one occupancy to another.)
This was odd. Business occupancies have a fire extinguisher requirement. Education and Assembly do not. The requirement was not contingent on sprinklers. A quick internet search provided some guidance.
Education and Assembly occupancy populations are probably more at risk from fire than Business occupancy populations. Think about little children and distracted crowds. So why not give them fire extinguishers? It turns out fire safety theory argues it is safer to get these populations out of the building than to have them stay and fight a fire. A teacher is better off gathering students together and getting them out of the building than running for a fire extinguisher to put out the fire.
Presumably most people in a business occupancy are adults, not so distracted that they cannot put out a fire as soon as it starts. New, small fires are called “incipient,” they are just starting out. Business occupants can be relied on to fight incipient fires. Students and crowds cannot. They should sound the alarm and get out of the building. Leave the firefighting to the professionals.
Of course, fire extinguishers are permitted in education and assembly occupancies. In fact, the local fire official at the school community remarked that fire extinguishers are a great way to fight an “incipient fire.” Her use of the term brought a smile to my face: Here was someone versed in firefighting theory.
My next thought was about this particular school community. It was an island community, accessible only by boat. This was a self-reliant group. They were not the type to outsource firefighting. They were the kind of people who could gather the kids and whip out the portable fire extinguisher without batting an eyelash. Many probably had previous experience with brush fires, wood stoves, engine fires on fishing vessels. They or someone they knew were members of the volunteer fire department.
The fire official’s remark about fighting incipient fires, even though the NFPA 101 did not recommend it for certain populations, made me wonder if firefighting should be part of everyone’s education. We all know how to drive, and most of us probably could change a flat tire. It’s something we learn when we are 16. Should firefighting be part of public school education? We practice fire drills at school. This practice allows us to leave a building in an orderly fashion when the fire alarm goes off. Should we also practice going to get the fire extinguisher before the alarm goes off?

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.