Leader Blues

Thursday, August 17, 2006

TOP STORY >> Sprinklers not mandatory

IN SHORT: Fire safety system not an automatic requirement, officials say.

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

The Cabot fire chief says sprinklers would have been little help in fighting the fire that destroyed the junior high building last week because the fire was in the attic, above where the sprinklers would have been installed.

But in fact, state school officials say sprinklers aren’t about saving buildings anyway; they’re about saving lives.

“It’s unfortunate what happened (in Cabot), but the purpose of sprinklers is to save occupants,” said Doug Eaton, director of public school academic facilities for the Arkansas Department of Edu-cation. “Putting out the fire is secondary.”

Cabot Junior High North met all the state building codes eight years ago when it was constructed, he said. The code requiring sprinklers was not adopted until 2003. Before that time sprinklers were an option.

Yet a school could be built today without sprinklers and still be in compliance with the state fire codes, said Jacksonville City Engineer Jay Whisker.

Reading from the Arkansas Fire Prevention Codes, Whisker said schools fall under Group E buildings and that no sprinkler systems are required unless the building is larger than 20,000 square feet. He said even then there are exceptions. “If each room has an exterior exit at ground level then sprinklers wouldn’t be required.”

Eaton said state law requires the adoption of building codes and those codes are periodically changed.

School districts are not required to update buildings to meet new codes.

However, if a district adds on to an old building, the new part must meet the latest code, but only the new part; the old part is grandfathered in.

So in Cabot that means only the new high school is required to have sprinklers. Whether any of the other buildings have sprinklers is a question that Fire Chief Phillip Robinson had not answered at press time.

None of the schools in the Sherwood or Jacksonville area have sprinklers. Most were built 30 years or more ago. The newest of those schools, Clinton Elementary, was built in 1994, about 10 years before the sprinkler requirement was added.
Beebe’s campus is covered with multi-million dollar buildings that look alike.

But they were built before 2003, when sprinklers were not required, so with the exception of the auditorium stage they probably don’t have them, said Belinda Shook, school superintendent.

Shook checked with architect Steve Elliott to make sure the district was in compliance with the state code on the addition to the junior high building.

She said Elliott told her the addition did not have sprinklers but it did have fire walls instead.

“We count on (architects and state officials) to know the code and make sure we do what we’re supposed to do,” Shook said.
Lonoke School District is building a middle school which will have sprinklers but none of the older buildings have them.
Beebe Fire Chief William Nick said that Thursday’s fire brought back memories of the blaze that destroyed Beebe Middle School in 2000.

That school didn’t have sprinklers and Nick said he wished it had. By the time the fire burned through to the attic, there was no stopping it. Cabot brought its new ladder truck to fight that fire and Beebe got to return the favor on Thursday when his department arrived with a rescue truck, a tanker, a pumper and the ladder truck bought since the middle school fire.

Like in Cabot, the fire at the Beebe school was mostly in a part of the building that was difficult to get to so putting it out was impossible, Nick said.

The Beebe school had three roofs and the fire burned between two of them where firefighters couldn’t reach with water.
Robinson, Cabot’s fire chief, said containing the fire at the junior high building was hampered by the lack of firewalls in the attic. Without them, the fire could spread through the attic unabated.

Nick was complimentary of the Cabot firefighters’ work, especially considering what they were up against.
“I think they did a heck of a job,” he said. “(The building had) wood trusses and a shingle roof. That’s quite a fire load.”
Leader staff writer Rick Kron contributed to this article.