Nearly half of Maine’s K-12 schools do not have sprinkler systems, and more may have old, incomplete or otherwise compromised fire suppression systems, according to Maine Department of Education estimates.
In a survey of Maine superintendents on the status of their facilities, 56 percent reported their schools had sprinklers, DOE Communications Director Kelli Deveaux said. But neither the DOE nor the fire marshal’s office has an exact list of which of the state’s 715 schools have fire suppression systems, which have outdated systems and which are unprotected.
School fires are most likely to happen during the day and during the school year, when buildings are at peak occupancy, the National Fire Prevention Agency found. But with the prohibitive cost of fire suppression and no broad mandate to fix all educational buildings with such systems, Maine’s aging schools remain vulnerable.
The state’s most recent school fires — which both occurred on July 25 — had two completely different outcomes, at least in part because one had a fire suppression system and the other did not.
Westbrook High School, which had sprinklers, ended up with smoke and water damage from an early morning blaze, but remains structurally sound. Less than two hours later, Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville, which did not have sprinklers, was totally lost to fire.
Westbrook Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte credits the building’s sprinkler system with saving the school. Turcotte is also a certified fire inspector and fire investigations technician. He said he has never responded to a fatal fire where sprinklers were deployed.
“If the sprinklers had not been activated at [the Westbrook] school fire, instead of one room that was involved, we probably would have had multiple rooms that were fully involved and fire would have most likely gone through the roof by the time we got there,” Turcotte said. “I can tell you for certain the school would not be opening this month or next month.”
More than half of Maine’s K-12 schools were built in the 1950s or earlier, Deveaux said, and many of these buildings have not had major upgrades since the state adopted the National Fire Prevention Association life safety code in the early 1990s.
New educational facilities in Maine have been required for 30 years to incorporate automatic sprinklers, and the code now requires schools to include emergency lighting, ramps and at least two exits on each floor.
But older schools like Dr. Levesque Elementary, built in 1964, have been grandfathered into state fire codes, and do not have to comply with these newer safety standards.
This is at least in part because retrofitting a building with a modern fire suppression system is so expensive. While there were no plans to add sprinklers to the school at the time of the fire, Frenchville Fire Chief Peter Parent said he’d heard the cost of retrofitting other buildings in the area was upward of $25,000.
Schools regularly find themselves squeezed between their safety priorities and their wallets, Turcotte said.
“This is not uncommon given the age of many schools in our state and given the lack of funding to improve the facilities, including updating life safety systems,” Turcotte said. “And this puts many school districts in difficult positions because while they would like to add these systems, they have to often choose between adding a new fire alarm system, sprinkler system, new boiler or roof, or keeping a math or art teacher or possibly losing a sports or humanities program.”
Gov. Janet Mills has added $63 million to the DOE’s School Revolving Renovation Fund, which Deveaux said she hopes will help old schools upgrade their buildings in coming years.
Turcotte said he hoped the fires at Westbrook and Dr. Levesque would be an eye-opener for the state and its school districts.
“A building can be rebuilt from fire, smoke and water, but you can never bring someone back,” he said. “As much as we practice fire drills and active shooter drills, when a true emergency happens, it’s chaos.”