On-Campus Fire Tragedies
By Linda Rudder,
Manager of Marketing, Mac-Gray and Howard M. Seidler, Associate Director
for Residential Services, Winthrop University
an average of 1,800 residence hall fires lead to injury, millions of dollars
in property damage, and even loss of life at American colleges and universities.
Despite administrators best efforts, college residence halls nationwide
share the same risk factorscrowded groups of young people cooking
on hot plates or too many appliances drawing power from a single electrical
by Eliminating Hazards
percent of residence hall fires involve cooking appliances or overloaded
electrical circuits. According to the National Fire Protection Associations
(NFPA) study on college and university residence hall fires, misuse of
cooking appliances ranks as the second leading cause of campus fires behind
incendiary or suspicious causes.
have to look at recent examples of how this hazard can lead to misfortune.
In Boston, in March of this year, an overloaded electric circuit started
a fire in a three-story apartment building housing area students. Thirty
people, mostly students, were displaced, and the building was severely
damaged. During the same month, an overloaded circuit started a fire in
a residence hall room at Princeton University. Although the students were
able to flee safely, the fire destroyed the entire room and its contents.
institutions are taking steps to reduce fire hazards in residence halls.
To offset this risk hazard, many colleges have banned cooking appliances
in student rooms. But even though they are banned, students often bring
illegal appliances from home, causing overloaded circuits and blown fuses.
Many institutions hold room-to-room inspections to assess overall room
condition and fire safety hazards. During these inspections, illegal appliances
are confiscated and stored for student pick-up at the end of the semester.
Additionally, some schools are sending information directly to parents
about the hazards of cooking appliances on campus, and encouraging parents
to help make sure that these items are not brought from home to campus.
Implementing maintenance procedures to track blown outlets is another
way to evaluate potential problem rooms where circuits are consistently
being overloaded, which can then permit follow-up with the students who
live in these rooms.
Suppression & Compartmentation
to improve student housing fire safety include Detection systems, such
as smoke and fire alarms, which are active systems that require
certain events to occur before they offer protection.
alert residents to fire in its early stages, giving as much advance warning
as possible so occupants can leave the building. Its important to
check these systems often. However, too many false activations or fire
drills can cause students to tune out. Such was the case at
Seton Hall University in 1999, which led to 62 injuries and the tragic
death of three resident students.
the tune out problem, alarm systems should be tested during
summer break and at other times students are not on site. Fire drills
with students should be scheduled on a regular basis but not excessively.
If alarms are being falsely activated, housing officials need to take
immediate steps to identify and eliminate the culprits.
should be monitored regularly to make sure theyre in working order.
In March, a fire occurred at a student housing duplex in Pennsylvania
causing extensive damage on all floors and displacing all six student
residents. The building had smoke detectors but some had been removed
or disconnected. Housing officials can improve student safety by checking
these systems on a regular basis and/or helping to educate students about
the importance of checking these life-safety systems in their campus living
and extinguishers are also active systems. But unlike smoke and fire alarms,
they both help suppress fires, providing they are in working order. While
fire sprinklers are not required in all campus residence halls, colleges,
recognizing the life-safety benefits of fire sprinklers, are increasingly
adding fire sprinklers to new buildings or retrofitting older buildings
that house students. Originally thought to provide excellent property
protection from fire, sprinklers also increase the likelihood of surviving
a fire by half to two-thirds, according to the NFPA.
a single sprinkler head contained a fire in a closet at Colby-Sawyer College
in New Hampshire. And, in March, a single activated sprinkler head contained
a trash chute fire in a high-rise residential facility at Clemson University
until the fire department arrived. All of the students in the building
were safely evacuated.
passive systems such as compartmentation offer round-the clock
protection should a fire start. Examples include special building materials
such as fire-rated glass and fire-retardant structural materials, including
chip & board, cinderblock, non-combustible interior finish materials
and others. Typically, glass will break when temperatures reach 250 F.
Fire-rated glass can survive heat in excess of 1,600 F. With most structural
fires capable of reaching 1,000 F within five minutes, the need for this
specialty glass in campus dwellings is obvious.
require the use of fire-retardant materials in construction, but some
do not. Many of these materials meet aesthetic, as well life-safety needs,
so theres no reason not to use them. When planning a window replacement
project or renovation of an existing student residence, consider using
all of the fire-rated materials you can.
with local codes and regulations
to the NFPA, residence hall fires cause an average of $8.1 million in
property damage each year. Compliance with state and local fire codes
and regulations is critical to protecting property and enhancing student
passes in each state, it is important to stay up to date on what these
changes mean to your residence halls, and be aware of compliance schedules.
Several good resources exist to help housing officials stay current on
fire-safety news for colleges and universities. Web sites such as ResidenceLife.com
and Campus-firewatch.com, provide timely and useful information on a range
of life-safety topics for campus housing officials. Professional associations
are another great source for information about campus housing safety news.
Eliminating existing hazards in student rooms, making sure all fire and
smoke detection and suppression systems are in working order, and using
fire-retardant building materials whenever possible will reduce the risk
of potential disasters. By taking these steps, housing officials can breathe
easier knowing that they have taken the necessary steps toward preventing
on-campus fires and ensuring the safety of its students.
About the Authors
is manager of marketing for Mac-Gray Inc., a leading provider of amenities
to colleges and universities nationwide. For more information, visit MACGRAY@WWW.MACGRAY.COM
or call (800)298-1022.
Howard M. Seidler is Associate Director for Residential Services in the Department of Residence Life at Winthrop University. Howard can be reached at Phone: 803-323-2223, Fax: 803-323-2395 or on-line: firstname.lastname@example.org.