Author(s): Kristin Bigda. Published on November 1, 2019.

In Compliance | NFPA 101

The Life Safety Code and day-care facilities


In August, a fire took the lives of five children at a day-care facility in Erie, Pennsylvania. Since then, it has been found that the home where the day care was located did not have adequate smoke alarms and had almost no way of warning occupants of a fire, especially at night when they were sleeping—the fire was reported at 1:15 a.m. It was also found that state officials who inspect child care centers, such as the one where the fire occurred, are not responsible for checking for fire safety features such as smoke alarms.

Historically, the number of fires in day-care occupancies is low, as are the number of fatalities. The codes contain a package of stringent requirements that, when followed, protect the vulnerable occupants and caretakers that spend their time in these facilities. A day-care occupancy is defined by NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, as “an occupancy in which four or more clients receive care, maintenance, and supervision, by other than their relatives or legal guardians, for less than 24 hours per day.” They may include facilities such as adult day care, child day care, day-care homes, and nursery schools/preschools. There are no age parameters for classifying an occupancy as a day care. Regardless of age, those who attend a day care may not be totally capable of self-preservation—the ability of a client to evacuate a day-care occupancy without direct intervention by a staff member—and may require a certain amount of assistance from the day-care staff to help with relocation or evacuation.

There is a threshold for the amount of time during which clients can receive care. The intent of the code is that clients attend the day care for no more than 24 hours. The intent is to differentiate between circumstances where clients are in residence 24 hours a day and a day care where clients normally reside at another location but are provided care at the day-care site when their primary caregivers are elsewhere.

Requirements in the code focus on building construction, special egress features such as rescue windows in non-sprinklered buildings, fire alarm systems, smoke detection systems, location of the day-care facility within the building, and separation of the facility from other occupancies. Smaller day-care facilities, with more than three but fewer than 12 clients, are classified as day-care homes. These are typically located in a residential setting where a day-care occupancy is often a standalone facility or is located in a building of another classification, such as an office building or apartment building. Protection features in day-care homes must address adequate means of escape, smoke alarms, smoke detection systems, and carbon monoxide detection. All classifications of day-care occupancies require emergency action plans, emergency egress and relocation drills, and fire prevention inspections. They also have limitations on furnishings and decorations to address those items that might contribute to flame spread and smoke development during a fire.

With the code providing such a thorough, all-encompassing package of safety requirements, how did the Erie fire go so terribly wrong? The first obvious answer is the lack of smoke alarms. Clients and staff had no way of being alerted to the fire. In any occupancy where people may be sleeping, smoke detection systems or smoke alarms are required by the code to provide that warning and wake people. Without those lifesaving fire protection systems, there is almost no way to be notified of a fire quickly enough. Additionally, it does not appear that there was a staff member on duty and alert during the night while the children were sleeping. The code requires that adequate adult staff be on duty and alert in the facility at all times where clients are present, which applies to day-care occupancies of all sizes, both new and existing.

While the definition of day-care occupancy limits the length of care to be no more than 24 hours, it does not prevent the facility from operating overnight. As societal needs change, families are finding that they may need child or adult care overnight. Single parent/caretaker homes, for example, may need this service if the parent works overnight or during the evenings. The stereotypical day care—a facility that only provides care during the day—is evolving to meet the changing needs of families. The intent of this requirement—for alert adult staff to be awake at all times when clients are present—is that it be applied to family day-care and group day-care homes that are operated at night, as well as the larger day-care occupancies.

The requirements related to staffing, inspection, drill criteria, and required presence of alert staff apply at all times clients are present, as the code recognizes day-care occupancies that operate at all hours. As these services evolve, expand, and cater to the changing needs of families, with both children and adults requiring care, the code will need to be vigilant and proactive if it is to continue to ensure adequate protection of day-care clients and staff in facilities of any size.

Kristin Bigda, P.E., is principal fire protection engineer at NFPA. NFPA members and AHJs can use the Technical Questions tab to post queries on NFPA 101 at