Fire in the Classroom

Are Holiday Decorations Putting Students at Risk?

Can students effectively evacuate the classroom, or will hotly burning decorations prevent their exit? Classroom displays provide important visual learning opportunities and also make the classroom environment more enjoyable. Who doesn’t want to go to school in the jungle room? However, display materials can also provide increased flame-spread, fire loading, and become evacuation barriers. Many fire jurisdictions have regulations that limit the use of non flame-retardant materials (such as paper displays). These materials may be used, but are limited to no more than 25% percent of the wall surface.

Display materials should also be located four feet from room exits and corners and nothing should be located overhead or hang from the ceiling. Decorative materials are not just limited to paper. Curtains, drapes, or any other combustible decorative material should be flame retardant and shall not block or conceal any exit, exit light, fire alarm, or fire extinguisher.

School administrators and teaching staff should be mindful of introducing flammable materials into the classroom. Parents can help reinforce the message by supporting appropriate classroom displays and by discussing concerns with school administration where needed. Questions can also be directed to any fire station. Every fire station will have personnel familiar with the fire regulations for the jurisdiction. In addition, most fire departments have inspection units with fire inspectors who conduct school visits to advise and reinforce fire regulations. These fire inspectors are more interested in fire safety than in issuing citations, so they are an excellent resource for school officials and parents who genuinely want to provide a safe learning environment.

Holidays exacerbate fire risk when instructors decorate their rooms with holiday themes. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas provide a bounty of decorating inspiration. Ghouls, ghosts, goblins, turkeys, cornucopia, snowmen, and hanging ornaments easily create excessive fire risk as teachers move from one theme to another.

The Christmas season is especially troublesome. Christmas trees, both live and artificial, introduce a serious hazard if not managed properly. Live trees become a serious fire hazard as they age and dry. Once ignited, Christmas trees burn violently. The tremendous heat generated by a burning Christmas tree can easily spread to the remainder of the building and/or block egress paths. Tips for a safe tree include the following:

· Ensure the tree has received a fire retardant treatment, or is a live tree planted in soil, or is “fire safe” (a tree with a fresh cut and placed in a water stand with 2 inches of water).

· Do not place tree within five feet of any ignition source.

· Do not use lights on a “fire safe” tree.

· Remove a live tree immediately if it begins to die.

· Do not leave trees in classrooms during winter recess.

We all want our children to do well in school. Effective classroom decorations help stimulate thought, creativity, and attention. However, this should not come at the expense of safety. Over-decorated classrooms not only create risk for the occupants, but also for firefighters. A classroom with an increased fire load burns faster and hotter making it more difficult for firefighters to control, which puts them at an elevated risk, and also increases the likelihood of losing the structure. This is an issue where we should all be on the same page.

Catherine W. Jones, is the Director of Risk Management Services from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office and is a contributor to Homeland Security360, a platform where insiders from the policy, law enforcement, fire service and emergency management fields converge to discuss issues related to Homeland Security.

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