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One Year After Mitchell Elementary School Fire: Are Students and Staff Any Safer?

One year ago, on February 27, 2014, Mitchell Elementary School in Racine suffered an overnight fire that caused the roof to collapse. Fire officials stated that fire sprinklers were only present in portions of the building, but not where the fire occurred.

When Racine Unified School District officials decided to tear down and rebuild the affected portion of the school, they chose to do so without installing fire sprinklers, instead investing in a three-hour firewall, and upgrading the fire alarm system and electrical wiring.

“While these other fire safety features are important, they will not make a difference in providing a safe route of escape for students and staff who may be trapped behind a fire,” states Dan Gengler, former firefighter and regional manager for the nonprofit Wisconsin Chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association. “Only fire sprinklers actively work to control a fire from spreading, putting water on it while it is still small and allowing occupants to escape.”

“School officials at Mitchell Elementary School have merely applied a bandage to the school fire safety problem. It is a problem that is present in many older, unsprinklered schools throughout Wisconsin,” he adds. “We are going to continue to see similar costly fires until school officials across the state become more aware of the importance of fire sprinkler protection for occupants and school buildings.”

In 2014 alone, there were tens of millions of dollars in damage and restoration costs at unsprinklered schools in Wisconsin, including Mitchell Elementary School, Oconto High School, Preble High School (Green Bay) and the sole school in Prentice.

School officials in Oconto chose a very different route than Racine school officials. After the fire at their high school, they added fire sprinklers as a referendum question to the November election ballot. Together with the Oconto Fire Department, the superintendent educated the community about the importance of fire sprinkler protection in not only the high school, but all three of the district’s schools. Through the educational efforts, Oconto residents voted in favor of installing fire sprinklers in the schools.

“Oconto school officials invested in the fire safety and the futures of their community’s greatest asset — its children. It’s sad that Racine Unified School District officials could not make the same investment in their children,” says Gengler.

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