Why We Don’t Have to Destroy the Fire Code to Save Lockdowns

The real solution should involve a long term strategy involving training, infrastructure and the revision of codes to address the threats of terrorism and active shooters.

Since the concept failure of lockdown at Sandy Hook as a single option response, there has been a flood of products and ideas into the market promising to improve school lockdowns. Automatic remote securing of doors, gun safe boxes, pepper spray boxes, overhead pepper spray in hallway ceilings, myriad secondary door locking devices, and bullet proof film and glass have become the new “normal” in recommendations from vendors.

I have heard sales pitches and been asked for endorsements “…to keep kids safe.” What I’m seeing is myriad products that violate the fire code, violate building codes, restrict law enforcement response, don’t take into account safe evacuation, require fine motor skills to operate and remove options from staff and students rather than enhancing their response.

The concept failure of school lockdowns stems from the fact the concept was initially used for drive by shootings and then was expanded to include active threats and terrorism…with no change in tactics. Though lockdown remains a secondary option in programs like ALICE Training and the Run, Hide, Fight recommendations from the Department of Education, it has been supplanted by evacuation as a primary response. Unfortunately, many facilities are finding that even as a secondary response, lockdown is leaving their facilities extremely vulnerable due to door and building design.

Most Doors Aren’t Bullet-Resistant
In the Buildings and Infrastructure Protection Series Primer to Design Safe Schools Projects in Case of Terrorist Attacks and School Shootings (FEMA-428/BIPS-07/January 2012 Edition 2), this issue is highlighted on page 3-43: “Doors used in educational facilities are commonly made of wood or aluminum with significant portions of glass. These materials can easily be penetrated and provide only partial defense against an armed intruder. Bullet-resistant doors are very expensive and should be used only where no other protections exist.”

It is easily inferred from this statement that most of the locations in educational facilities are easily breached by determined individuals bent on causing harm.

Campuses Must Prepare for Terrorism
Gone are the days when locking a door, turning off the lights, pulling the drapes, sticking paper in the window and being quiet were the recommendations. We now need to prepare on the level that a Beslan, Peshawar or Utoya Island will happen here…to us…today. Incidents such as Columbine, Red Lake, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, while all horrific, are small in scope when compared to these overseas incidents. Our training and our buildings should be complimenting each other in order to mitigate casualties when a terrorist event occurs. The reality is that most of them are not.

Most building and fire codes were developed to deal with a threat that was killing tens of thousands every year. That figure has been reduced to roughly 3,000 fire deaths per year in the United States for the last decade, with no deaths to children in a school fire since 1958. Improvement in training for civilians, along with infrastructure improvements and strict code enforcement has made our people much safer.

During this time, frame school buildings started to become more open, made with glass windows instead of walls, became more “green” leading to the emphasis on heating and cooling of buildings which in turn led to buildings being built with windows that do not open. Doors were installed with windows in them and, in some instances, huge man-sized panes of glass next to them. All of these designs have caused a huge gap between what “looks good” and what is “safe” when it comes to a building being targeted.

Codes Don’t Fully Address Terrorism, Active Shooters
Our building codes have not evolved to deal with the twin threats of terrorism and active shooter. What we have now, especially in the area of secondary locking devices, is an explosion of products that attempt to plug this massive threat gap in infrastructure. When fire was confronted as a threat, the answer was to come up with a long term strategy to address the issue. The long term solutions to the problem were based on training all building occupants to respond to a fire and structure enhancements improving evacuation options. These solutions have not changed from the original suggestions put forth in 1947 President’s Conference on Fire Prevention. New technology has been absorbed into the Fire and Building codes without significant change to the original concepts and instead is viewed as enhancing civilian response.

There are several issues with secondary locking devices, the primary one being they violate fire and building codes that have been successful in saving lives for several years. Another issue is that they require fine motor skills. Something as simple as dropping a bolt into a hole or sliding a device under a door can be difficult to accomplish under stressful conditions.

Vendors say that these devices must be readily accessible (I have seen several video demonstrations of devices being hung next to the door). This makes the device also readily available to the active shooter who – in educational facilities at least – is probably a student. It would also be easily accessed by terrorists during an attack on a facility.

Students, if not with staff or if a staff member is incapacitated, will not be able to use lockdown as an option if not trained on the device. Several devices require installation and drilling into the door, which ruins fire ratings, invalidates warranties on doors and violates fire code.

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