Protecting Students from Toxic Wildfire Smoke with Properly Controlled HVAC

During this past summer, more than 200 wildfires burned across Canada. The smoke was so intense that schools in Philadelphia (hundreds of miles away) went to remote learning in June. Remote learning is nothing new, but it doesn’t replace the in-classroom experience. Had those fires occurred during August and September, the intersection of the traditional school season and the regular wildfire season, millions of schools and students across the northern parts of the US would have been affected. 

Schools can benefit from technology that owners of office buildings have been using for some time: building management systems (BMS). BMS incorporates mechanical systems, sensors, and computer software to monitor building operations, primarily heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), but other systems, too. HVAC and air-handling systems controlled by BMS monitor temperatures and ensure a quality work environment by exhausting stale air and toxins, everything from exhaled pathogens from sick workers, the cologne from the person in the cubicle next to you, toxic fumes from copy machines and carpet cleaners, and–you guessed it–pollutants from wildfire smoke. Fresh, filtered air enters the space as the system exhausts the bad air.  

In this blog post, we will tell you, as school administrators and building managers, how to limit the danger of wildfire smoke when you don’t have an up-to-date BMS in your schools. We’ll also share funding opportunities created in the fight to control COVID-19 that you can procure to install a new BMS, or upgrade the system you already have. 

Lost School Days Are Only One Hazard 

Dr. Lisa Patel, a pediatrician and pediatrics professor on the Stanford University School of Medicine faculty, reports that wildfire smoke is ten times more toxic than other forms of pollution. Patel says this “isn’t surprising because what’s burning includes houses and cars … It’s a mixture of solids and liquids that become dispersed in the smoke. Because they’re so tiny, the particles get into the lungs, into the vasculature [circulation system], and enter our bodies, potentially setting off a cascade of inflammation.” Wildfire smoke can weaken immune function, lead to cardiovascular and lung diseases later in life, and create long-term cancer risks.

One of the culprits is the ultrafine particles, smaller than 2.5 microns, common in wildfire smoke. These are also called fine particulate matter (PM2.5), invisible to the human eye. As a comparison, the diameter of a human hair averages between 60 and 100 microns. 

What Can Schools Do To Protect Students From Wildfire Smoke?

The BMS systems we previously mentioned are also found in schools but are different from commercial buildings. Additionally, school building management staff is often not trained for the formidable challenges of wildfire smoke. Changing filters regularly, making sure they are using the correct filters, and ensuring the proper maintenance of the system are areas often overlooked. 

If a school does not have a centralized building management system or one that is up-to-date, there are other measures. 

Baseline measurements: Low-cost air sensors can measure interior pollution. Get a baseline reading from these sensors on a clear day with good weather. They are less accurate than regulatory monitors but can indicate when the pollution level is approaching the danger area. These sensors can also help you determine if efforts to limit wildfire smoke are working. 

Consult acknowledged standards: Most state departments of education have developed air quality standards for student activities during wildfire episodes. As a sample, check out the guidelines from the Montana Office of Public Instruction

Use high-efficiency filters: Determine whether your existing HVAC system can operate with HEPA filters (high-efficiency particulate air filters). HEPA filters can remove 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns. HEPA filters, however, require that your HVAC system has enough power to push the air through these higher-density filters. Call a trusted HVAC specialist to evaluate your system. 

Consider portable air cleaners: If HEPA filters are not possible, purchase portable air cleaners for each the classroom. The California Air Resources Board lists certified air-cleaning devices. 

Weatherize buildings and classrooms: Repair cracked or broken windows and loose seals. Use rubber or brush seals at the bottoms of doors to limit air coming in. 

Limit entries: Kids are notorious for leaving doors open. Try to limit the number of entries into a classroom, reducing areas where smoke can enter. This should be balanced against safety concerns. Students need to be able to exit quickly or securely shelter in place in an emergency. 

Regular training: The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), is the leading source of standards and certifications on air handling systems. ASHRAE has conferences and seminars regularly. Check them out at

How Does COVID-19 Fit Into This?

If your school district plans to replace or upgrade the air handling systems in some or all schools, there is good news. Congress passed the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act. This legislation includes the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), a source of money for schools to purchase equipment to safeguard against COVID-19 and other diseases. Funding is also available at the state level for many of these projects. You’ll have to do some internet searching, but the dollars are out there. 

Conveniently, almost all air-handling measures that limit the spread of COVID-19 also work to diminish wildfire smoke. 

“Districts in the planning stages of new schools or replacing or upgrading air handling systems in existing schools should contact a reputable firm specializing in building management systems (BMS),” said Mitch Andrus, a member of the FICO team. “A good BMS can provide better ventilation, pay for itself in saved energy dollars, and incorporate other systems, including electrical distribution, security, and more.”

FICO, located in Montana, specializes in building management systems and system integration. The firm serves Montana and parts of the western US. We are experts. Visit our website today.    

FICO provides turnkey building management and system integration services for technically complex buildings in Montana and beyond. From design and installation to ongoing maintenance and security, our best-in-class people and products help you achieve operational savings and minimize risk as you work to provide reliable and safe environments.

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