Local News

Many N.C. Schools Predate Sprinkler-System Mandate

Posted November 2, 2006

— A Guliford County school was destroyed Wednesday when a massive fire engulfed the structure. Eastern Guilford High School was built in 1974, decades before a change in state law mandated sprinkler systems in most new school buildings.

The majority of new schools throughout the state, such as W.G. Pearson Elementary in Durham, are in compliance with the law change. The state-of-the-art school opened its doors for the first time this year, and shiny silver sprinkler heads are visible in every office, hallway and classroom.

"If a fire or any little thing happened in a classroom, it'd be contained in that area," said W.G. Pearson Principal Sandy Chambers.

W.G. Pearson is one of two of the district's 46 schools that have a sprinkler system. In Wake County, 21 of 146 schools have sprinkler systems, along with one out of 11 in Orange County and 2 out of 86 in Cumberland County.

"The building code evolved over time," said Ron Allen with the Durham Public Schools.

In 2002, North Carolina adopted the International Building Code that requires all new educational buildings to have sprinklers. Some smaller schools are exempt, but many of those have firewalls and extensive fire alarm systems.

"Sprinklers are mainly for protection of property," Allen said. "Our first priority is safety of staff and students."

Like most school systems, Durham focuses on fire prevention. Staff are trained how to properly use fire extinguishers, inspections are done on a regular basis, and children are drilled on escape routes.

Durham Public Schools is working on a 10-year facilities plan. Part of that plan includes retrofitting old buildings with sprinkler systems. Upgrading an old school can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but completely replacing a school can cost millions.

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