Life and Death Matters – Why it is Important to Properly Maintain School Fire Alarm Systems

Guest Blog by Jacob Terrell


During my senior year in high school I completed an internship with my school district’s maintenance department.  This was a revealing and informative process and I am fortunate that my school district afforded me this opportunity.  I had the chance to study different fire alarm brands and equipment. I also got to see first-hand how important it is to have fire alarm systems in schools. I was also able to conduct some research on the topic and learned some interesting facts about school fire risk. 


For example, here are some interesting facts from the National Fire Protection Association concerning school fires:

  • Nearly 72% of fires in buildings that provide education occur in preschool and K-12 school buildings.
  • It is estimated that 4,510 fires per year form 2005-2009 occurred in buildings that provide preschool and K-12 education.
  • Half of the fires that occur in preschool and K-12 school buildings are the result of arson.

I think we can all agree that fires are one of the most common types of school safety hazards, and although it has been well over 60 years since we have seen a fire related death in a school in the United States, we should not presume that we could not have another mass casualty school fire.  Since two of the most lethal school crisis events in our nation’s history involved fires and we have had numerous near misses, we must remember that like any other hazard, fires can kill and should be treated seriously.

Oftentimes in a school building the system of warning that there is a fire is a fire alarm system. In many cases it is an automated detection system that is the first to detect the presence of flames, even before the occupants do.   Obviously, rapid notification is a must during a fire situation. But like other building systems, fire alarm systems can and sometimes do malfunction.

This is why it is so important that regular system tests and that regular fire drills should be conducted using different pull stations.


For example, at one school I attended, administrators attempted to conduct a fire drill, however the drill did not go off smoothly.  Apparently, not a single fire alarm notification device was activated because of a problem with the system, and because of that the drill was postponed.  I learned that there were already other problems being indicated by the fire alarm control panel even before they tried to conduct this drill.  These were problems that had been there for quite some time and might not have been identified if the drill had not been attempted. An important point here is that you can’t postpone a fire.

One aspect of my internship was that the school district’s maintenance department is staffed with good people who I appreciate and respect greatly.  At the same time, like many school district maintenance departments, their resources are limited and their workload appeared to be almost overwhelming at times.  It is important to consider that these hard working men were extremely busy with other maintenance issues that also require their attention.  This requires that school maintenance staff members and school administrators should work together to monitor the overall efficiency and maintenance of fire alarm systems as well as other fire safety equipment in the buildings.  By working together to identify and resolve fire alarm problems, the reliability of these life-saving systems can be improved. With the many responsibilities they have, it can be easy for school administrators and maintenance people to procrastinate on these types of issues. 

This constant vigilance requires time and energy and when problems are found they should be corrected as soon as possible, even if that involves installing new equipment or even a new system in extreme cases.   Constantly checking and properly maintaining fire detection and warning systems can take, time, effort and money. Considering how these efforts can not only reduce lost instructional time through false alarms but can indeed save the lives of staff and students the effort is certainly worthwhile.


A recent high school graduate, Jacob Terrell is an intern with Safe Havens International. Jacob has completed multiple FEMA online courses relating to school safety and is a Skywarn severe weather spotter. Jacob hopes to pursue a career in the field of school safety. During his internship, Jacob has been conducting research on active shooter situations, school tornado preparedness, school fire prevention and all-hazards school crisis planning. While a student, Jacob has experienced two school fires and desires to make schools safer for students and staff. Jacob welcomes reader questions, comments or concerns at


About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.