Cites safety in support of school bond

Dear Editor:

In Chicago in 1958, the Our Lady of the Angels school suffered a severe fire that killed 95 students and staff. The fire, which started in a trash pile in the basement, burned for several minutes before spreading to unprotected areas on the second floor. The Chicago Fire Department responded with more than 200 firefighters divided among 22 engine companies, 7 truck/ladder companies, and 10 rescue/squad companies. Despite this astounding turnout of manpower and equipment, crews were not able to rescue everyone from the second floor. Amazingly, many of the victims had never been touched by the flames. Rather they had succumbed to the thick toxic smoke that had spread throughout the building. “Our Lady of the Angels School Fire: Introduction” Illinois University

NOTE: The following information was obtained independently and is not associated with any local agency. This fall, a fire occurred in the South Tama Middle School building which caused minor damage but required extensive clean-up and decontamination. The fire started in a piece of furniture in the basement and traveled through unprotected concealed spaces within the walls. The fire spread to the roof and began to impinge on the roof structure and covering. The fire also began to extend into a first floor classroom by compromising non-fire rated paneling that was used to cover a portion of a pipe chase that runs from the basement to the roof. After burning for several minutes the fire caused a plastic pipe to fail allowing water to cool the fire and the area of origin. Along with knocking down much of the fire, this cooling also resulted in the production of large quantities of steam and smoke which spread throughout the building and activated the school’s alarm system. When crews responded the remaining fire was quickly controlled and clean-up efforts were started soon thereafter.

Though these incidents had different results, there are many similarities that cannot be ignored. The school in Chicago was built in 1910, not long before our Middle School, and both buildings are primarily masonry and wood structures. There were changes and additions to the safety requirements after the Our Lady of the Angels fire. Some of these changes can be seen in the sprinkled hallways and fire doors at the ends of the halls. These features are intended to protect paths of egress and prevent fire from spreading from one level to another. The changes enacted after the tragic Chicago fire, however, do not address concealed spaces within the walls and floors which still allows for the possibility of fire spreading through walls, ceilings, and under the wooden floor structures of the classrooms. Should a fire manage to extend into a classroom, it would be able to grow and spread until extinguished by fire crews as the classrooms are not protected by sprinklers. There are also no measures built into the school to contain or exhaust the smoke that would be produced by a fire. Smoke that would actually be much worse than the smoke present at the fire in 1958 due to our modern reliance on plastics and other petroleum products.

Some may be wondering why many of these issues are not addressed by updates of building codes? The fact is that the code applicable to any building is the code that was in place when the building was constructed. The current code can only be enforced when a building changes occupancy (mercantile to assembly for example) or during a major renovation.

At any given time within our community, our fire and EMS departments can muster 3 fire engines, one quint (engine with a ladder on top), two rescue units, and four ambulances, all staffed by anywhere from 20 to 40 personnel of varying levels of training and ability. The people of our emergency services are dedicated and are motivated to help the community no matter the cost and I am privileged to work and train with many of them regularly. One has to consider, however, that the largest initial response our communities would be sending to a three story occupied school with people trapped is very comparable to what many metropolitan career services would send to a single-family residential fire. For example: the Milwaukee Fire Department’s initial response to a single-family residential fire is 3 engines, 2 trucks, a squad, two chiefs, and an ambulance for a total of 24 to 30 personnel.

What’s the point? We learned this fall that our Middle School is not immune to the threat of fire. We’re lucky the fire this fall was kept in check by a failed water line. We can “what if” the scenario as much as we want. For example: what if the water line hadn’t failed? What if the fire had been more serious and one of our firefighters had been injured or killed fighting it? What if the fire had occurred during school hours, broke through the wall of a classroom, trapped students and staff, and left several people injured or dead from heat exposure and smoke inhalation? What if, what if, what if….. These are all hypothetical scenarios that may never happen. On the other hand, one or all of them could happen tomorrow. I am not comfortable betting on “probably” as in there will “probably” never be another fire. The school board and our superintendent have determined that, willing the community’s support, we have the means and the ability to provide our children and school staff with a modern facility that is more than “probably” safe. In my opinion we would be very irresponsible to not take advantage of this opportunity.

In response to much of the dialogue that has been taking place on this page, we need to remember that this is a complex government project. It is going to take time and there will times when we don’t know, nor need to know, what exactly is happening within the process. It has been compared several times to building a house when in fact it is quite different. You can’t scribble something on a napkin, take it to the lumber yard, have them give you a ballpark figure, then take it to the bankers for a loan with a give-or-take allowance figured in. Unfortunately, with these types of projects, money has to be spent to determine how the rest of the money will be spent.

Look to the west at the Police and Fire building that Marshalltown recently constructed. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent just to determine a site and how much to bond for. Once the process was started, it took over three years before the building was finished, on a project much smaller and less complex than a school.

There has also been several suggestions that we wait 4 years so the elementary is paid off. I don’t agree with waiting and I’ll cite the safety concerns discussed above. Also, consider that it will take 3 years before staff and students move into a new middle school once the process is started. Waiting 4 years to start the process will stretch the move in date out to seven years at the soonest All while price of a new building continues to rise and the problems with the current building continue to compound themselves. The only advantage I see to waiting is it will allow many of us to announce our candidacies for the school board after finishing our degrees in education, child psychology, educational administration, architecture, civil engineering, and public finance administration.

Curt Raue