Why a Maine School Devastated by Fire Did Not Have Sprinklers

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A Maine elementary school that was devastated by a fire over the weekend did not have a sprinkler system and was not required to because of its age, the state fire marshal said.

The wings of the Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville that burned down were constructed in 1963, prior to building codes mandating sprinkler systems in schools, Fire Marshal Joe Thomas told NECN and NBC 10 Boston Tuesday.

"There is no blame, they didn't do anything wrong," said Thomas of the school district, adding that, "until the 1990s, we didn't see fire suppression in schools at all."

Thomas said it is easy to find an example of a suppression system preventing damage because another school in Maine experienced a fire over the same weekend.

In Westbrook, flames broke out in a high school classroom after an air conditioner was improperly operated with an extension cord.

Though there was some damage, Thomas explained that a sprinkler system in the school helped prevent significant spread of flames.

"Of all the technology there is, suppression systems are the greatest guarantee that you've got survivability and you've got property protection in that building," he said.

After Maine's first shark attack nearly a year ago, the state is adding new buoys to help track sharks.

As for lessons learned from the Frenchville fire, Thomas said it its worth noting that "a lot of buildings in our environment don't have sprinkler systems in them" and "people need to plan appropriately and take appropriate action like exiting, drills and awareness."

Fortunately, classes were not being held in either Westbrook and Frenchville and occupancy in the buildings was minimal at the times of the fires.

However, as Thomas and others look at the images of both incidents, they say it is not hard to imagine the risks had there been people inside. That alone is all the more reason for anyone constructing or modifying a building to consider adding a sprinkler system to it, even if there is no rule saying you have to.

"I look at fire laws now and look at fatalities now and think, 'It doesn't have to happen,'" Thomas explained. "We have the technology to stop that from happening but it's a cost issue."

Meanwhile, the loss of the Dr. Levesque School is a difficult one because it is a central community gathering place and a lot of people in Frenchville, a small town on Maine's far northern edge, are employed there.

"There are generations upon generations of families that have gone to the school," said Patience Bernier, who lives in eyesight of the damaged structure and still had pieces of ash on her lawn on Tuesday.

"It tugs on our heartstrings a lot, I just cross my fingers we're able to rebuild quickly," she added.

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