At a recent special study session held to bring the district's board of trustees up to speed on the progress of Measure G projects, newly elected trustee Steve Nelson invited Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, to speak to the importance of installing fire sprinklers in all buildings throughout the district. He asked that the board use a portion of the $198 million Measure G bond to install these fire protection systems.
Some might be surprised to learn that a school board would need to be asked to install fire sprinklers. But because they have been subject to different building codes than business and residential buildings, many older schools do not have fire sprinklers or alarms. Additionally, while a 2002 law mandated that all new school buildings and any school facilities undergoing significant repair or renovation would be required to install sprinklers, the law included one exemption. If a school project is paid for entirely through local funds, the installation of fire sprinklers and alarm systems is not mandatory.
Because the fire prevention systems can be costly, school districts have been known to forgo installing them — opting instead to purchase insurance that would replace buildings lost in a fire.
Taking this approach is a mistake, according to Schapelhouman. Though he acknowledged that many school fires occur at night when no one is around to be hurt, that doesn't rule out the possibility of a school catching fire during the day.
At Green Oaks Family Academy Elementary School in East Palo Alto, a child heading to the restroom noticed a fire burning in a nearby school building. If it had not been for this child, many children may have died. "The kids got out just in the nick of time," Schapelhouman said.
He asked that the board adopt a resolution to not take advantage of the exemption in the law, and install fire sprinklers in all district buildings.
Superintendent Craig Goldman said that he understands Nelson's and Schapelhouman's urgency but that he also understands rationale behind not installing fire sprinklers. Goldman noted that no student has died in a school fire in California since 1933. That doesn't mean he wouldn't support installation of some fire prevention systems, he said.
"We want to install sprinklers where they're appropriate, not as a blanket rule," he told the Voice.
Board memeber Phil Palmer seems to share Goldman's view. After the presentation by Chief Schapelhouman, he proposed that the board look into areas where they felt sprinklers would be most likely to save lives, install them there, and forgo installing them in buildings where students seldom go.