Mountain View Voice

News - November 23, 2012

New board member pushes for fire sprinklers

by Nick Veronin

Should the Mountain View Whisman School District install fire sprinklers in all of its buildings?

It is a safe bet that Steven Nelson will be pushing for just that once he takes his seat on the district's board of trustees.

At the Nov. 15 school board meeting, board member-elect Nelson gave a presentation to the current trustees. Quoting a local fire official who advocated for all districts in the state to pledge to install fire sprinklers in all school buildings, Nelson said he would like to see the district use Measure G bond funds to install sprinklers in all the buildings where children spend a significant amount of time. There are laws which allow districts to forgo the installation sprinklers in certain instances.

"Something like 2 percent of the 200 million (dollars projected to be raised by Measure G) could put sprinklers in all the students' classrooms," Nelson told the Voice.

Those unfamiliar with the laws surrounding fire sprinklers might presume that all schools would be required to install them — especially in new buildings.

However, schools have long been subject to different building code laws than business and residential buildings. For a long time, districts were not required to install automatic fire sprinklers. As a result, many, if not most, of the buildings in the Mountain View Whisman School District do not have sprinklers.

A law passed in 2002, the Green Oaks Family Academy Elementary School Fire Protection Act, said that all new school buildings would be required to have sprinklers, and that schools engaging in significant improvement projects would have to put sprinklers in old buildings they were retrofitting. But that law had one exception. "Private and parochial school projects and public school projects 100 per cent funded by local funds are not required to install automatic fire alarm systems under this law."

Because the Student Facilities Improvement Plan will be funded entirely by local funds, the district doesn't have to install fire alarm systems and sprinklers if officials don't want to.

Superintendent Craig Goldman said he wouldn't rule out the installation of such systems in certain instances. But he said that automatically triggered fire sprinklers do a great deal more to protect property than they do to protect human life, noting that no student has died from a school fire in California since the passage of the Field Act in 1933. Because automatic sprinklers cost money to install and maintain, and because they are more likely to help save property — which can be insured for less money — Goldman said he was hesitant to pledge to install automatic sprinklers across the board.

"There's no evidence that suggests the addition of automatic sprinklers will improve upon the safety of the children and staff," Goldman said. "The position of the administration is, that as stewards for local taxpayer funding, it would not be appropriate for us to make such a pledge. Ultimately we should be considering each project on a case-by-case basis."

Nelson said that the potential loss of life should not be the only metric taken into account when considering the installation of fire sprinklers. Automatic sprinklers can greatly reduce the impact a fire has on a structure, and they have the potential to limit a fire from spreading out of the room where it begins. The difference between one room being slightly burnt, and a multitude of classrooms burning down is significant, he said, as it could be the difference from a school being slightly disrupted and a school being entirely shut down for an extended period of time.

Nelson acknowledged that installing sprinklers as a matter of policy, instead of selectively, would cost more money, but he said it would be worth it. Even if the sprinklers aren't statistically likely to help save a life, there is a chance they could, he said. Plus, teachers leave many materials in their classrooms that have sentimental value or that they purchased using their own money.

Pointing to the July 2010 fire at Trace Elementary School in San Jose, Nelson wondered whether fire sprinklers might have saved that school from losing more than 12 classrooms. "It was the teachers at Trace Elementary that were most impacted," he said.

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