Stricter requirements for school fire sprinklers are on the horizon for New York State but fire-prevention experts say they will have little impact on Long Island, where barely 10 percent of public schools have sprinklers now.
The vast majority of Island schools were built before sprinklers became as common as they are today, and the new standards will apply only to new construction.
Two school fires in the past six days have heightened anxieties in the region, which lags behind the state and nation in sprinkler installations.
State Education Department data, compiled at Newsday's request, finds sprinklers installed in barely 10 percent of Long Island's public schools and 20 percent of schools statewide. And some of those installations are only partial.
Nationwide, the number of schools with sprinklers is steadily rising to as much as 34 percent, according to a recent study by the National Fire Protection Association, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that focuses on safety standards.
Island officials note that most of the region's schools were built in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when construction codes were more lenient than they are today. Officials add that local schools generally have one to two stories, unlike taller city schools, where the need for sprinkler systems is more critical. All 1,200 of New York City's schools are at least partly covered by sprinklers, officials say.
The Island's school officials insist their buildings are perfectly safe, and they question the cost and reliability of sprinklers compared with other safety measures. Area firefighters say, on the other hand, that sprinklers have been proved effective, and that state officials should move faster to mandate their use.
"Why wouldn't you pass a law immediately to do something that's going to save lives?" said Peter M. Jorgensen of Greenlawn, a longtime volunteer firefighter and construction manager. Over the past five years, Jorgensen says he's helped build three schools in Queens, all equipped with sprinklers.
New York State's building code, based on international standards, currently requires sprinklers in school spaces unless they are protected by fire walls and less than 20,000 square feet. Typically, school architects avoid the need for sprinklers by dividing buildings into smaller spaces surrounded by such walls.
The new standard - adopted last year by the Washington, D.C.-based International Code Council, which provides model building codes for New York and other states - requires sprinklers in school spaces unless protected by fire walls and less than 12,000 square feet. Officials at New York's State Department in Albany say the state's building code will be updated to include that provision within the next two to three years, following the usual procedure for amendments.
Elementary schools generally range in size from 60,000 to 70,000 square feet, while some high schools are up to 500,000 square feet.
John Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, which proposed the regulatory change, considers it a limited improvement. "What about the thousands of schools that don't have sprinklers and may never have them?" he said.
Local school officials contend that fire walls provide adequate protection, when combined with other safety measures such as fire drills.
"We can empty our schools in two minutes," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.
Cost a factor
Those officials also question the cost of sprinklers, which range from $2 to $3 per square foot in new buildings and from $4 to $5 per square foot in older schools that are being retrofitted. Total costs of new school construction range from about $200 to $300 per square foot.
But some national experts express surprise that even new schools on the Island are being built without sprinklers. For example, a $58 million expansion and reconstruction of East Hampton High School, now under way and considered a model of energy efficiency, will not include sprinklers, its architect confirms.
"Really? I would be very surprised to see that," said Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers in Bethesda, Md. He added that sprinklers have a "great performance record" in extinguishing fires and allowing more time for school evacuations.
Fighting fires without sprinklers: LI schools' arsenals
The great majority of Long Island's public schools do not have fire sprinklers, relying instead on other safety measures. Some examples:
Fire alarms: A sound device that signals the need for school evacuations; required for all schools by state regulations.
Fire walls: Typically, cinderblock barriers extending from floor to roofline and capable of preventing fire from spreading for at least two hours; state building code does not require sprinklers in school areas of less than 20,000 square feet protected by such walls.
Fire drills: Required in all schools; typically prepare teachers and students to evacuate buildings in 2 minutes or less.
Smoke alarms: A detector that signals the need for evacuations.
Strobe lights: Help students and teachers evacuate schools when visibility is limited by smoke.
Heat sensors: Often placed in boiler rooms and kitchens to provide early warning of potential fires.
Fire-resistant materials: Includes steel building frames, brick facing, flame-resistant auditorium curtains.