New Fire Code in Mass. Targets Classroom Displays

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Massachusetts schools will reopen in the fall under a new state fire code aimed at curbing the amount of flammable artwork and decorations hanging in classrooms and hallways.

The rules, approved in mid-June by the state Board of Fire Prevention Regulations, follow a recent and sharp increase in school fires across the state.

The new rules replace older regulations that state fire-prevention officials said were largely ignored by schools. State officials say they plan to impose tougher enforcement measures with the new code.

In classrooms without sprinkler systems, teachers will be allowed to cover no more than one- fifth of the wall space with hanging paper displays that are not flame- resistant. Thirty percent of the walls can be covered with non-flame resistant paper displays in schools that have sprinklers throughout the building.

The rules are most restrictive regarding paper displays in hallways and large gathering areas such as gyms and auditoriums. In those areas, the new rules prohibit any flammable hangings, decorations, or displays, except in spaces with sprinklers. In areas with sprinklers, only 10 percent of the wall space can be covered with untreated paper artwork or decorations.

The rules have prompted some criticism from educators who worry that it will hamper student creativity and render classrooms barren.

But because the rules include doors, windows, blackboards, and whiteboards as part of the overall "wall areas," and make exceptions for displays that are enclosed in glass cabinets, state fire officials argue that such concerns are unwarranted.

"The criticism being leveled is that you're going to see barren classrooms as a result of this rule, but that's just not the case," state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said.

Other observers question the necessity of the rules.

"It's always hard to criticize the judgement of fire and safety officials, but a lot of people in Massachusetts consider this to be over-the-top and overregulation," said Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Boston- based Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Mr. Coan argued that the latest available state fire data underscore the need for the restrictions and tougher enforcement.

In 2000, 203 fires were reported in Massachusetts public and private schools, a 26 percent increase from the previous year. The blazes caused 16 injuries and about $1.2 million in total damages, according to the fire marshal's office.

The Arson Problem

"More than half of those fires were lit intentionally," Mr. Coan said, "and done so with the most readily available flammable material. So, this is an issue for our state."

State fire data also show that some 65 percent of the fires in 2000 happened in schools without sprinkler systems, and most broke out during lunch.

The Massachusetts rules replace more restrictive regulations that permitted virtually no display of untreated paper in schools. But the old code was widely ignored by schools, Mr. Coan said, and was "unenforced and unenforceable."

Nearly a year in the making, the new code mirrors standards proposed by the National Fire Protection Association, an international nonprofit group based in Quincy, Mass., that advocates and provides model fire- prevention codes, research, education, and training.

The Massachusetts rules are expected to take effect this month. Before schools reopen, the state fire marshal's office will work with local fire departments to explain the regulations to schools and promote enforcement.

Vol. 22, Issue 42, Page 3

Published in Print: July 9, 2003, as New Fire Code in Mass. Targets Classroom Displays
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