The threat of a major fire on one of our Oklahoma campuses is something that
we live with on a daily basis. Higher education’s facilities are filled with
combustible materials, complicated processes, flammable substances, and human
beings. These factors can easily add up to death and destruction if
everyone isn’t working together to prevent fires.
Fire is the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States, yet
most people ignore it. More than
150 workplace fires occur every day.
Fire develops from a mix of three components—fuel (such as paper, oil,
wood, etc.), oxygen (present in the air), and heat (from flame, electricity,
friction, or chemical reaction). Some
of the specific fire hazards that are found in most workplaces are:
Flammable liquids like oil, gas, solvents, and other chemicals are a fire
hazard mainly because of their invisible vapors, which spread rapidly through
the air and can't be seen. When
these vapors come into contact with an ignition source, fire results.
(Have you ever heard of someone being burned while using gasoline as a
cleaning agent in the garage?)
Smoking—lighted cigarettes and matches—can easily ignite any-thing that
is capable of burning, such as wood, paper, or flammable liquids.
While most institutions don’t allow smoking inside facilities, it’s
not uncommon for Oklahoma to have building and grass fires caused by the
improper disposal of cigarettes or matches. A fast traveling grass fire on your
campus can be a real possibility in our Oklahoma summer drought season.
Space heaters are another fire source, because they can easily be tipped
over. Before using a space heater
in any campus facility, you should receive approval from your institution’s
administration, and the space heater should be the type that shuts off
automatically when accidentally tipped over.
Welding and cutting operations are fire hazards, because of the flames and
sparks that result from the operation. Do you remember the famous fire in the
mile-long building at Tinker Air Force Base years ago?
It caused widespread damage—all from sparks from a welding operation.
Spontaneous combustion is a surprising cause of fire.
It’s the slow buildup of heat in flammable materials, which eventually
erupts into fire. Spontaneous
combustion is easily prevented by placing flammable materials in approved
storage cabinets or cans. One
example is the oil-soaked rags found in all automotive shops.
At the end of the day, these oily rags are placed in a tightly closed
metal can, which limits the oxygen available to promote burning.
Chemical reaction is a possible source for fire in higher education, because
of the prevalence of chemicals on campus. When
in-compatible substances—air, water, heat, or other chemicals—mix with
particular chemicals, that’s reactivity.
You may have noticed placards on the doorways of science buildings and
laboratories on your campus, which are there to notify you and local
firefighters of the hazards that exist at the site. One of the hazards of which
these placards warn is reactivity.
Fire & Life Safety Codes
National, state, and local governments have developed standards and
regulations governing fire and life safety at public institutions.
You will see proof of these codes at your institution in the emergency
lights, lighted exit signs, fire extinguishers, fire-rated doors, etc.
These codes mandate the occupancy load, the numbers of doorways and means
of egress, etc. The advancement of
fire prevention technology—explosionproof lighting, flammable safety cans and
cabinets, heat and smoke detectors, and computerized alarms—has prompted
revision of fire and life safety codes. Let’s
not forget the fire prevention education that is now a part of the common school
Older facilities on your campus may meet only minimum fire and life safety
codes, while the newest buildings are up-to-date with the most modern fire and
life safety technology. This is
because the older campus facilities were built well before the establishment of
most of these codes, and public institutions are entitled to certain exemptions
to ensure they don’t become financially strapped by trying to attain total
compliance at one time. Slowly, but
surely, campus facilities will be brought up-to-date for the protection of
Local and state fire marshals are the regulators of compliance for fire and
life safety codes, and they have been instrumental in the establishment of these
regulations. It has taken the deaths of many to enact these safety codes!
Chances are your local firefighters are able to inspect your campus only a few
times a year, so it’s up to the employees of the institutions to ensure that
fire prevention equipment is inspected, maintained, and working. It’s up to employees to ensure that emergency exits are not
blocked, locked, or chained to inhibit free egress from a burning facility.
It’s also up to employees to keep fire doors from being propped open.
The plus side to all your effort is that you can use the same information
in your home to protect your loved ones.
Types of Fires
Fires have been classed into four categories:
Class A fires are made up of ordinary combustibles or fibrous materials, such
as wood, paper, cloth, rubber, and some plastics.
Class B fires are made up of flammable or combustible liquids, such as
gasoline, kerosene, paint, paint thinners, and propane.
Class C fires are made up of energized electrical equipment, such as
appliances, switches, panel boxes, and power tools.
Class D fires are made up of certain combustible metals, such as magnesium,
titanium, potassium and sodium. These
metals burn at high temperatures and may react violently with water or other
chemicals, so they must be handled with care.
These fires must be fought correctly in order to prevent more damage or
Regulations require the placement of fire extinguishers at regular intervals
in public facilities. Extinguishers
come in different types to fight the different classes of fire, so it is
important that you have training in their proper use if your institution
has given you the job duty of fighting fires.
Some institutions prefer that employees do nothing more than pull a fire
alarm and evacuate the facility—they want you to leave the fire-fighting to
the professionals. Still other
institutions have empowered some of their employees with the training and
knowledge to judge whether a fire can be fought with-out endangering anyone.
Using the wrong type of extinguisher on a fire or the improper use of an
extinguisher can lead to more extensive damages or injuries.
Fire safety is often a matter of common sense—if people would only use it.
Never use electrical wiring whose
insulation (outside covering) is frayed or worn. Have
it repaired or replaced.
Do not use temporary wiring (extension
cords) as a replacement for hard wiring.
Check that ground connections—which
keep electricity in a safe path—are sound.
Do not overload fuses, circuits, motors,
or outlets— plug adapters are a no no!
Don’t keep any materials that could
catch fire near lights or machinery. This is especially true of space heaters and halogen light
Don’t allow transmission shafts,
bearings, or motors to overheat, especially if they’re in an area with
dust/lint that could burn.
Do not leave heating equipment or
machinery running unattended or overnight.
Be aware of unusual odors—wiring
problems or overheating may be the cause.
If you see smoke coming from a computer or
electronic component, unplug it!
Never put electrical cords under carpeting
where a fire could smolder undetected (due to damage inflicted by traffic).
If you must use an extension cord (for
temporary use only), make sure it’s the right size and type.
Check material safety data sheets before
use to determine if a liquid is flammable.
Use flammable liquids only in areas with
plenty of ventilation. Using
them near heat, fire, cigarettes, or sparks could ignite the fumes.
Quickly clean up flammable liquid leaks
or spills. Dispose of rags and
waste that are saturated with flammable materials in closed, air-tight,
metal containers in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area.
Store flammable liquids in approved,
airtight, metal containers away from ignition sources.
Keep containers closed when not in use, and take out only what you
need for the job.
Store flammable materials only in
designated locations. Check
container labels and material safety data sheets to make sure you don’t
store incompatible substances close together (such as oxygen and acetylene
Assume that an empty container that held
flammable liquids still contains flammable residue inside.
Obey NO SMOKING signs. When you do smoke,
extinguish matches and cigarettes carefully and properly.
Use space heaters only when absolutely
necessary, in well-ventilated areas, and place them so that there are no
combustible materials nearby.
Start a “hot work” permit system for
any welding and cutting operations on campus.
Do not leave circuit breakers blocked in
a closed position, and clearly label circuit break-ers so that you know
which control what.
Allow a 3’ clearance around breaker
boxes and electrical panels (so that sparks cannot ignite combustibles).
Do not store combustibles in campus mechanical rooms, either.
Do not store combustible or flammable
materials beneath stairwells.
Keep doorways and passage-ways clear. Do
not block or lock emergency exits.
Do not store materials so high that they
block sprinklers. Al-low at least a 2 ft. clearance.
Report missing or expended extinguishers
to your super-visor.
Learn the location of extinguishers,
emergency lights, alarm stations, exit signs, and external fire escapes.
Post and practice evacuation plans.
Know that fire drills occur to save your life.
(If you can’t remember the last one, it’s time!)
Fight or Flee?
You just opened the door to your office and have discovered a fire in the
trashcan…do you fight the fire or do you close the door and flee?
It will be your call. The
one thing your institution will not want is your injury or injuries to others in
We’ve mentioned many times that your department or facility should
establish an emergency action plan and have trained employees on what to do in
case of emergency. If, and only
if, you have been trained in the use of fire extinguishers, may you try to
put out the fire.
Make sure of the following:
everyone has left or is leaving the
the fire department has been called;
the fire is contained to a small area and
is not spreading;
there is an unobstructed escape route to
which the fire will not spread; and
the extinguisher is the right type for
Here are some additional tips:
If you discover a fire, close the door to
the room in which the fire is located and call for help—dial 911 or pull
the alarm—before doing anything else.
The last person out of a room should
close, but not lock the door so that firefighters are not hindered in
search and rescue efforts. Closing
doors will help keep the fire from spreading.
Proceed to the nearest exit and follow
your emergency action plan.
Never use an elevator as a means
of escape—under any circumstances!
Stay low to avoid smoke and toxic gases.
The best air will be found close to the floor, so crawl if you have
If it is possible, cover your nose and
mouth with a damp cloth to help you breath.
In multistory facilities, a stair-way
will be your best escape route. Once
in the stairwell, proceed down to the first floor—don’t go up.
If necessary, use an external fire escape
to exit the facility.
Report to the appointed location and stay
there until you are released by authorized parties.
Remember to stay calm and cooperate with authorities.
If you know someone is still in the facility, alert firefighters or police. Do not attempt to go back into the building yourself.
As you search for ways to get out, never
open a closed door without first feeling the door and the knob—using the
back of your hand to prevent a burn. If you feel heat, find another exit.
If no escape exists, seal the cracks
around doors and vents with anything possible. To prevent the entry of
smoke, use wet towels or clothing to seal the space under the door. Cracks
around the door can be sealed with masking tape.
Find a phone and call the fire
department. Report your exact
If you are having difficulty breathing,
try to ventilate the room. (Don’t wait until an emergency to discover that the windows
cannot be opened.)
If you are on an upper floor, do not
break the window glass for ventilation.
You may injure firefighters and people exiting the building.
If you have not been able to notify
firefighters, wave for attention at the window where others at the scene can
If you catch on fire, never try to run!
Stop where you are, Drop to the floor, and Roll
around. This will smother the
flames. If a coworker is
en-gulfed in flames, grab a blanket, rug, or coat and wrap them in it—you
could save that person's life.
To help burn victims, get them away from
the fire. Cut off smoldering
clothing that is not sticking to the skin. Remove any jewelry. Calm
the victim until professional help arrives.
It is a fact that some of the most extensive fire prevention education has
occurred in U.S. elementary
schools. These children are
encouraged to bring their training home to their families, and they do it in
Then why do adults continue to ignore fire alarms? Why do adults disable
smoke detectors? Why do adults play
with extinguishers? Why do adults
do absolutely nothing when they detect a burning smell?
Unfortunately, we have no answers to these questions.
If a 2nd grader can learn and practice fire safety, can’t
It takes less than three minutes for a free-burning fire to reach over a
1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoke
you inhale during a fire will affect your cognitive functions, and you won't
react in a normal manner.
There’s much more to learn about fire safety, and here are a few Internet sites that you may find informative: www.ou.edu/oupd/ fireprim.htm; www.nfpa.gov and www.nsc.org. In addition, our library contains several fire safety videos that your institution may borrow—call us at 405/ 325-8069 or send us email at lwarner@ ou.edu.