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Fire Sprinklers Could Have Prevented Substantial Smoke Damage in Oconto High School Fire

On the morning of April 16, a fire occurred in the 1960s-era Oconto High School causing substantial smoke and fire damage. The fire occurred in a bathroom as students were between classes, but no one was injured.

According to Oconto Fire Chief Jack Mlnarik, thick, toxic black smoke from the burning of the recycled plastic bathroom partitions spread throughout the school when it was sucked into the ventilation system. He says there are no fire sprinklers in the building and there were also no smoke alarms present in the bathroom.

Dan Gengler, a retired fire official who represents the nonprofit Wisconsin Chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA-WI), says the lack of fire sprinkler protection in the building put occupants at risk of injury or even death from smoke inhalation.

“If fire sprinklers had been present, the fire may have been extinguished or at least under control while firefighters responded. They also would have greatly reduced the smoke,” says Gengler. “Instead of substantial damage, there would have been some minor mop-up and smoke ventilation over the weekend. It’s likely that classes would have been able to resume in the same building this week.”

“For the significant amount of clean-up costs associated with recovery from this fire, it’s likely that the school could retrofit a fire sprinkler system and provide proper fire protection,” adds Gengler. “Parents of the students should be able to have peace of mind that their children are safe from fires while at school.”

The fire creates a challenge for the community as high school students must be relocated to the middle school and teachers try to gain access to their supplies and set up their temporary classrooms.

The Oconto High School fire occurs just one-and-a-half months after an overnight fire at Mitchell Elementary School in Racine caused a roof to collapse. School officials there had to relocate students to another location for the remainder of the school year.

“It is the responsibility of the Oconto Board of Education and school boards throughout Wisconsin to ensure student safety within their schools. That should include providing the best fire protection available to protect students, staff, visitors, and the firefighters who respond to fire calls,” states Gengler. “Wisconsin schools must be proactive in retrofitting their buildings with fire sprinklers before one of these school fires ends in tragedy. We must protect the bright minds in our schools.”

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