A Deadly School Fire and Why a Thermal Camera is Perfect this Winter 2021

A thermal camera can be your most indispensable tool in ensuring your educational establishment is safe for your students this winter. It may be a cliche. But when it comes to providing a safe environment for the students to flourish, an ounce of prevention is definitely better than a pound of cure.

To drive that point home, we may not need a more graphic example than the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago in 1958. Truth be told, the sorrow that the December 1, 1958 disaster cannot be ignored. As the tragedy left 93 people dead (3 of whom were nuns, the rest were young graders), Chicago mourned like never before. To a large degree, the traumatic incident left a huge scar not just in Chicago but the whole world — prompting then pope, Pope John XXIII to send his condolences.

What’s amazing is most if not all who died could have been saved had they been warned earlier. Minutes before the fire became full-blown, people downstairs were already aware of the fire. Unfortunately, they failed to alarm those on the second floor of the school, in the process casting many into imminent danger.

That’s exactly why a thermal camera matters most in winter. The electronic wonder can show you hidden dangers in your educational institution building that usually manifest when the sweater weather is in full swing. The fire that gutted the Sisters of Charity school in Chicago may be decades away. But if we fail to learn a lesson from it, we could be endangering the lives of people we swore to protect. Read on.


Lessons from the Fire that Left Chicago Mourning

If you think that the incidence of school fires that leave us in intense sorrow is rare, then you need to think again. Since the early 20th century, fires have gobbled up educational institutions — along with dozens of young schoolers.

It’s why taking a closer look at one of America’s most heartbreaking school fires: the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in the winter of 1958 is spot on.

Doing so should shed light on one of the most agonizing incidents that left the whole city of Chicago in tears and America in untold sorrow. By looking into the sequence of events, we should be able to prevent such disasters from happening to our schools in the near future ever again.

Here’s a timeline of the event as it unfolded:

Table 1: Events and Timeline of the Our Lady of Angels School Fire

For starters, Our Lady of the Angels School, a Catholic school of about 1600 students, was an old school teaching kindergarten to eighth grade. As such it adhered to Chicago’s old fire codes but was found lacking in many areas of fire safety in today’s standards.

Although well-maintained, several fire hazards existed. Some of these are:

  • Only one fire escape
  • No automatic fire alarm
  • No rate-of-rise heat detectors
  • No direct alarm connected to the fire department
  • No fire-resistant stairwells
  • No fire sprinklers
  • Interior is made most of wooden material
  • Out of reach fire extinguishers (mounted 7 feet)

In short, the school was a sitting duck. To make matters worse, the school did not have a box alarm. The fire department was informed only after a box alarm was sounded by the owner of a candy store near the school. He did so after seeing children jumping from the heights of the second floor.

The Chicago firefighters who were responding during that day realized that the building was a “fire trap”.

As Robert Quinn, the late Chicago fire commissioner, commented on the fire accident, ”Unfortunately as in most fires, the damage is mostly done before the firemen get there.”

After the incident, safety corrections were made. For one, all Chicago schools installed fire alarm boxes both in the exterior and in the interior of their buildings. Fire doors and automatic sprinkler systems also became the order of the day.

As a result, 1958 became a turning point for fire safety in schools all over the country`.

One of the students who survived the fire is Jonathan Friga, now more popularly known as Jonathan Cain. Cain is the keyboardist/guitarist member of the global hit band Journey. He composed the song “Faithfully” and “Open Arms.

For sure, thermal imaging cameras would have allowed firefighters to navigate their way better through all the mess. As observed, there were many delays in the rescue operation as the fire personnel met blasts and heavy black smoke along the way. With an infrared camera, they would be in a better position to assess the situation in spite of the heavy smoke and fire.

Even better, a thermal camera can help prevent the incidence of fire in more ways than one. It can promote school building integrity and ensure your institution is safe and sound — especially during winter.

Thermal Camera and Your School Building’s Integrity this Winter

While the cold winter has been associated with staying indoors and merrymaking, it’s also an open season for fire disasters. As many fire incidents show, our longing to stay warm during the winter months can put a lot of pressure on our building structures.

For starters, heating is the second leading cause of home fires all over America during the winter months. Also, it’s the third leading cause of fire deaths. It’s also the reason why relying on space heaters during the sweater months can be disastrous.

School Fires in America at a Glance 

Table2: School Fires in America at a GlanceFigure 1: Structure Fires in School Properties by School Type 2014-2018 Annual Average

Figure1. Structure Fires in School Properties by School Type
2014-2018 Annual Average

Data Source: Structure Fires in School

Lucky for you, a thermal camera can be most useful in disaster prevention. When you talk about ensuring your school building’s integrity, there may not b a more powerful tool in making it happen. 

Below are 3 ways an infrared camera can be your key ally in preventing fires and other disasters in winter:



Electrical integrity thermal image

Electrical failures or malfunctions form 17% of the leading causes of school fires. The problem is aggravated by the fact that our eyes are severely limited in assessing electrical integrity. In the end, we have the tendency to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. We forget to prioritize preventive electrical maintenance assuming things are running smoothly.

The result is telling. As clueless as we are, electrical malfunctions blow up in our faces. Indeed, it’s a dangerous scenario that we should work hard to prevent.

Moreover, the winter months pose a far greater risk when it comes to the incidence of fire. As our need for heating rises, electrical circuits work double time. As a result, electrical faults are amplified.

SOLUTION: Do an electrical audit using a thermal camera. While the human eyes fail to them, an infrared imaging camera can detect electrical faults. That’s because of the heat emitted. Problematic electrical appliances produce heat before it breaks out into a fire.

For instance, you can easily pinpoint an overloaded electrical outlet using a thermal camera. Also, a baseboard heater under a pile of cardboard boxes may escape human eyes. However, the heat signature of that heater will easily stand out in the eyes of the thermal camera. The same holds true for overheated circuit breakers.



HVAC integrity thermal image

As winter is upon us, our desire to get as much warmth as possible comes to a head. Indeed, such a drive to heat things up overburdens the HVAC, or specifically the heaters. Unfortunately, many fires during winter are caused by overheating heaters.

For one, space heaters are a leading culprit in many fires during winter. As reported, far too often space heaters can easily heat up blankets or curtains that are in their way. As a result, fire easily breaks out, putting your school and everyone inside in danger.

Also, space heaters are not designed to be plugged directly into an extension as they could overheat the wires. It gets even worse when you use lighter extension cords.

Additionally, other heating mechanisms could endanger your school during winter. The presence of extreme heat in these heaters could trigger fires when in contact with flammable materials such as clothing or rugs.

Chart of Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment by Type
of Equipment, 2014-2018 Annual Averages Data Source: National Fire Protection Association

SOLUTION: As much as possible avoid using space heaters. If you have to use one, plug them directly into a wall plug — never into an extension cord.

Assess the integrity of your HVAC using a thermal camera. Problematic heaters will register above normal heat signatures. When such a phenomenon is observed, you can proceed to have professionals factor repair and maintenance. When you use infrared imaging, the traces of heat will show you how healthy your heating system is.



Structure integrity thermal image

If you’re not careful, your school structure could be rotting from the insides. Educational institutions are subject to wear and tear as time goes by. The weather can drastically damage wood for instance.

The problem is it’s hard for you to know the integrity of a substance if you only see the surface. Being able to assess damage from the inside is a challenge when you can only see the skin of the material.

More often than not, old schools could harbor weakened materials. As the Our Lady of the Angels tragedy showed a weak structure can easily be picked apart by fire endangering everyone inside in the process. Apart from the strategic faults of the building design in that fire, the building structure itself has deteriorated compounding events.

SOLUTION: A thermal camera audit should help you pinpoint weaknesses in your school building structure. Even better, it’s easy to scan a building using a thermal camera as it’s non-invasive. Deviant heat signatures can signal a questionable area in the structure giving you a needed clue where to put your attention.

Key aspects a thermal camera can be used in building inspection are:

  • Detect energy losses
  • Detect defective or missing insulation
  • Pinpoint air leaks
  • Locate moisture in any insulation (e.g., walls, roofs)
  • Zero in on molds and areas with weak insulation
  • Zero in on thermal bridges
  • Seek out water infiltration (flat roofs)
  • Seek out breaches in hot water pipes
  • Pinpoint construction failures
  • Zero in on faults in school supply lines and heating
  • Zero in on electrical faults
Indeed, it’s easier to locate inferior areas in your school structure. using a handy infrared camera. It can give you a leg up in ensuring your educational institution is above par.

The problem with winter is this is the time when building weaknesses manifest most. When the weather is cold, cement and steel could be adversely affected. Plus, the presence of moisture can easily damage building materials.

With a thermal imaging device, you can zero in on the problem with greater speed and untold accuracy. Doing so gives you instant diagnostic insights. Not only does it show you the construction problem but also it reveals the extent of the problem to the fullest.

Winter is coming. But an infrared camera can go a long way in ensuring your school stands strong despite the sweater weather. Truth be told, you have the welfare of your students and the entire school in mind with a thermal camera in hand.

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