By Dr. Steve Albrecht
On February 18, 2020, two 13-year-old boys allegedly lit a fire in the Children's Section on the top floor of the two-story Porterville, CA library. They fled, as did the other patrons and staff in the building, who all got out safely. Unfortunately, two Porterville Firefighters, Patrick Jones, 25, and Raymond Figueroa, 35, died while fighting the blaze. The two teenagers, who were released in August 2020 to home confinement, face charges of conspiracy, murder, and arson that could put them in the California Youth Authority until they are 25. The library housed 77,000 books and was built in 1953; it did not have fire sprinklers.
According to a story in the February 19, 2020 edition of The Sacramento Bee: "For two decades, the city of Porterville discussed the need to upgrade its 67-year-old library where two firefighters were killed Tuesday. The structure was so old it lacked the fire sprinklers required in modern buildings and had numerous other structural problems, according to city officials.
"A library assessment commissioned by the Porterville City Council in 2008 said that the building whose original floor was built in 1953 'is in relatively good shape,' but several repairs including a fire-reporting system 'must be addressed.' The report recommended a smoke alarm system directly linked to the fire department central station."
"With the renovation, a fire-safety upgrade is required," the report says. "A smoke alarm system with central station reporting is a good inexpensive solution. Its estimated cost is $25,000.'"
"It's not clear if any of the fire alarm upgrades were made following the 2008 report."
"The library is so close to a fire station that the risks seemed minimal, said Edith La Vonne, the chairwoman of the Porterville Library and Literacy Commission. The back wall of the library butts up against Fire Station 1," La Vonne said. "They're just around the corner, so for me the proximity to the fire department ... I happen to know they're extremely efficient. They're good. They're well trained and so a fire never occurred to me."
"The 2008 report noted other problems with the library building. Water had damaged the roof in the northeastern corner and the building's foundation was sinking in places due to being built on poor soil. "Electrical service is maxed out and requires an upgrade," the report said. "The suspended ceiling is not braced for earthquakes."
"The original 3,824-square-foot building constructed in 1953 was expanded in 1974 to two stories, adding 6,100 square feet to the library, according to the 2008 report.”
This tragic story should remind all library leaders and all library employees about our collective need to pay careful attention to a fire as a rare but catastrophic event (like the rare possibility of an active shooter in the library). We need to have written and practiced plans in place and still prepare for an unlikely occurrence. The likelihood of a library fire can be estimated on many factors: staff vigilance about not allowing smoking or watching for signs of arson (especially possible from mentally ill patrons or children); the age of your facility (newly-constructed buildings are much less likely to catch fire or burn); the installation or absence of water sprinklers, smoke, and heat sensors; a building-wide fire alarm system with audible alarms and a public address system to be used to notify all staff and patrons to evacuate; and the proximity of the fire department and its number of staff.
This last issue is the most surprising to people. According to a 2014 report from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), about 70 percent of America's firefighters are volunteers, and 85 percent of the nation's fire departments are all or mostly volunteer. The smallest communities — those with fewer than 10,000 residents — are almost always served by volunteer departments (https://bit.ly/38cfWbL). The majority of fire stations in the US are staffed by a full-time, paid Fire Chief, one to three Assistant or Battalion Chiefs, and the rest is made up of volunteer firefighters. For rural libraries, there may be a substantial distance and delayed response time by an all-volunteer Fire Department.
As library leaders consider the vexing issue of a building fire, they should discuss and verify:
- The marked location of evacuation routes, for patrons in the front and employees in the rear.
- Moving children, elderly, or disabled patrons out of the building, quickly and safely.
- Having more than one fire drill per year (follow our K-12 schools, who do several).
- Being vigilant of any hazardous materials (hazmat) in storage areas, janitorial closets, kitchens or break rooms.
- Keeping all gas, electrical, utility, and IT Server rooms secured.
- Being aware of any potential chemicals or flammables on site.
- Constant awareness of children or teenagers playing with lighters or matches.
- Reporting any arson threats or attempted arson by disturbed or disgruntled patrons to the police.
- Vigilance by staff to enforce "No smoking" by patrons (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and vape pens).
For professional advice on this issue, I consulted with my colleague, Robert May, JD. Bob is not only an attorney but also a former Fire Chief for two southern California agencies. He teaches fire leadership and emergency operations management for various fire administrations in the state of California. He is the CEO of Mainstream Unlimited, a firm that specializes in risk management consulting, onsite training, webinars, and site security assessments. He can be reached at www.MainstreamUnlimited.com.
Here are Chief May's thoughts on keeping libraries safe from fires:
"Libraries can pose a challenge when it comes to fire and life safety. The buildings are potentially high-occupancy facilities with hidden dangers. Employees and visitor safety are critical. Besides the life safety exposures, the building can house irreplaceable books, priceless valuables, and historical artifacts. It's not uncommon when a library is involved in a fire for the damage to be significant. These buildings pose a high risk to the entity that owns and operates the building, which could be a city or county, a landlord, or a property manager. All libraries must be outfitted to prevent or reduce damage and allow the safe evacuation of employees and patrons."
"The first step is to determine the high-risk areas of the building. This would include areas where:
- Exhibits featuring highly combustible materials like paper, wood, or textiles.
- Exhibits featuring preserved specimens housed in alcohol or other flammable liquids.
- Tightly-packed rooms with exhibits or bookshelves.
- Rooms housing materials easily damaged by smoke, soot, or water.
An important factor in preventing a fire loss is through the maintenance of a good fire prevention program. The fire protection program and accompanying policies need to be in writing and updated periodically.
Management and staff responsibilities need to be defined, and fire prevention procedures need to be established. This program must be based on a high standard of janitorial services, housekeeping, orderliness, maintenance of equipment, and continuous staff training and awareness in both recognizing and eliminating fire hazards (ignition and fuel sources).
To help in the reduction of these exposures a fire protection plan is needed. A fire protection plan should have these goals in mind:
- Preserve documents, data, artifacts, exhibits, and equipment.
- Reduce smoke and soot contamination.
- Reduce water damage caused by onsite protection or fire hoses.
- Have a safety plan for the evacuation of staff and visitors.
"More important than the preservation of the archive and library and its collections is, of course, the safeguarding the lives of its staff and patrons. Life safety must always come first. Library management must ensure that employees know what to do in the event of a fire."
- Make sure they know what the building fire alarm sounds like (bells, horns, chimes, speakers with recorded instructions). Fire drills should be conducted at least twice a year.
- Ensure employees can hear the alarm. Extend alarms to locations where the alarm cannot be heard and make provisions in the interim to alert employees in those areas.
- Ensure all employees know their primary and secondary exit routes. Every archive and library should have an evacuation plan and provide it to all employees. Walk through exit routes to make sure they are clear and available for use. Conditions may change daily due to construction, renovations, repairs, etc.
- Egress paths are not obstructed by storage, etc.
- Exit doors are accessible, unlocked, and not blocked from the other side.
- Exit signs are operating and visible.
- Emergency lights are functional and adequate to illuminate the exit paths in case of a power failure.
- Staff knows where the meeting point is outside the building so they can be accounted for.
- An introduction to fire prevention is given to all new employees.
Chief May concludes by saying, "No library institution is immune from fire. Library leaders need to ensure they develop plans for dealing with the fire threat. If they do not do it, it places the building and its occupants, visitors, and collections at risk."
Your best ally in the process of keeping your library safe is your local Fire Department. Call the Fire Chief and/or the Fire Marshal to set up a meeting and ask for a full inspection of your building. Follow the recommendations – equipment, policies, training, drills – of your fire professionals.