Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago was an old 2-story wooden building. In 1958, a fire started in the stairwell. Because the door at the top of the stairs was left open, smoke quickly reached the second-floor classrooms, and 92 students and three nuns were left with no escape route.
This tragedy led to the establishment of the Illinois school building code. While other building types are only inspected at the time of construction, this code requires that Illinois schools be surveyed continuously to ensure that they are maintaining high levels of safety and health.
The Regional Office of Education (ROE) inspects the schools in its district every year with a checklist that mostly focuses on fire safety. In addition, the Illinois school building code says within two years after Sept. 23, 1983, and every 10 years thereafter, schools are required to hire an architect or engineer licensed in the state of Illinois to conduct another, more comprehensive survey.
While there is no checklist of items that must be inspected in this 10-year health/life safety survey, there are a number of items that I recommend you look for:
- Accessibility – Does the school comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act? For many schools it hasn’t been an issue yet, but adding accessibility features such as lever instead of round doorknobs could get part of the school’s ADA renovations paid for by Health/Life Safety and Fire Prevention and Safety funds.
- Stairwells – Handrails need to be on both sides and continuous; also, posts need to be closely spaced so children will not fall through.
- Door Closers – Some schools need a reminder not to prop open fire doors. A way to fix this is to install doors that automatically close.
- Dead-Ends – Are there any long corridors with no emergency exits, so students have no direct access to the outside?
- Obstructed egress – Sometimes teachers might pile storage items in exit paths or doorways. There needs to be a clear path from anywhere in the school building to the outside.
- Safety glass – Many older buildings used wire glass, because it was thought to not shatter. However, there are much better glazing methods now, such as tempered glass.
- Emergency Lighting – Make sure all emergency lighting works; check batteries in battery-pack lights.
- Security – With security being a concern at some schools, emergency exits are sometimes locked, which would prevent students from using them during a fire.
- Communications – Ensure intercom and fire alarms working, and also that there are auditory alerts for vision impaired.
- Sprinkler systems – They are required for schools built after 1993; those built before are not required to have them, but if the school does not have many violations to address, it might be a good time to install them with the help of state funds.
- Moisture/mold – If there are any water leaks, find out what’s causing them and fix it.
- Asbestos – Located in the floors or ceilings in older buildings, if there have been any remodels or damage to the tiles it could pose a health concern.
- Lead paint – An issue in schools built before 1970. If paint is starting to peel, it needs removal by a professional.
Taking pictures of violations is also a good idea. These might help convince the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) that items on your safety survey list are a problem and need to be fixed.
What would be included in the report?
The 10-year health/life safety survey should include:
- Floor plans of each building
- Description of the school (such as enrollment numbers and type of construction)
- Site plan (streets, buildings, fire hydrants)
- Violations and recommendations to fix them
The violations should include:
- Reference to the school building code
- How to correct the problem
- Priority of each item (“urgent,” “required,” or “recommended”)
- Cost estimate for each
How recommendations are prioritized
“Urgent” violations are anything that could pose an immediate danger to the safety of students and should be fixed within one year. Examples would be a wall that could collapse, obstruction to egress, a non-working fire alarm system, mold or friable asbestos.
“Required” violations are those items that are necessary for a safe environment, but present less of an immediate threat to the safety of students. These items should be addressed within five years. Examples would be no fire wall separation, wire glazing on windows instead of tempered glass, malfunctioning equipment, old roofs, tuckpointing, or using door props instead of automatic closers.
“Recommended” safety survey items include accessibility elements; security (for instance, adding a secure entrance or cameras); and energy efficiency improvements, such as a more efficient HVAC system or switching from single-pane to double-pane windows.
Process for survey submittal
- Schools need to contact a qualified architect or engineer, who will complete a survey, review and modify it with the superintendent, and create a report.
- After the school district approves the report, the architect or engineer will submit the survey to the Regional Superintendent and ISBE.
- The survey will then need to be approved by the Regional Superintendent. After approving the survey, the Regional Superintendent then submits it to the State Superintendent of Education.
- The State Superintendent will then authorize funds to be used for each work item listed on the schedule of violations. The State Superintendent will approve or deny all or part of the report and Issue a Certificate of Approval for the 10-year survey.
The cost of the survey depends on the individual architect or engineer’s fees, and the age and complexity of the school building.
If your school is due for the 10-year health/life safety survey, it would also be a good time to create a long-range master plan for renovations. Knowing what your school’s needs are and planning how to pay for them while state Health/Life Safety and Fire Prevention and Safety funds are available can offset expected costs for the district.
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||I enjoy collaborating with my clients and find great fulfillment when that collaboration creates a product they are proud of. I want to work with clients from early design stages all the way through construction to make sure they get the building they want.
Shanna Fish, AIA, LEED AP, BD+C
800.798.8992 | firstname.lastname@example.org