Fire Safety Often Overlooked at Colleges

College Life Editor
USA Vanguard
University of South Alabama

According to the Center for Campus Fire Safety, since Jan. 2000, 78 people have died in student housing fires. These numbers alarmed the U.S. Congress and this year they designated September as “National Campus Fire Safety Month.”

The fall semester is when most fires and deaths occur. Legislation is also considering laws that would give federal funds to schools that retro-fit automatic sprinklers into residence halls that do not contain them.

The Campus Fire Safety Right-to Know Act is also being proposed. This act would have schools provide campus fire safety information to the U.S. Department of Education. If these laws are passed, parents and students will become more aware about the importance of fire safety.

“Everyone remembers to ask about Internet capabilities and crime statistics at colleges, but too often we forget about fire safety,” Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, said.

In the past couple of years, USA has had one major fire in the dorm rooms. No injuries occurred but the damage was extensive. Joe Green, director of housing, says it is believed that the fire originated on a desk.

All smoke alarm signals go the central utility office. In the last two to three years, administration discovered a glitch in this operation. The operator in the central utility office is present 24 hours, but there is a gap in coverage when the operator has to leave his post to check machinery operations.

So now an alarm simulation appears on the police dispatcher’s computer. Campus police usually responds in two to three minutes to calls. After the police responds and finds there is a fire, the dispatcher calls the fire department.

All of the residence halls have smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. Smoke alarms are required in each living area in residence halls because the area is being used for sleeping, even though that may not have been its original intent. Also a fire in the living area will rapidly block escape from the sleeping area in most cases.

The only halls that have sprinkler systems are the Greek houses and Epsilon 2. James D. Lake, a senior protection specialist, says the mandate for automatic sprinkler systems in the dormitories originated in hotels because there were many conditions that contributed to deaths, such as people sleeping in an unfamiliar environment.

All of the other residence halls such as the Deltas and Epsilon 1 do not have sprinkler systems because they were built in compliance with the building code at that time.

Even though there are not any immediate plans to install sprinkler systems in these buildings, Green realizes that sprinkler systems may become a requirement in the future. “At some point we could be confronted with that requirement,” Green says.

False fire alarms are not uncommon on campus especially in the Betas and some of the Gammas because they have kitchens, but Green made it very clear that disciplinary action will be taken towards students who cause false alarms.

“If the student is identified, the student could be punished by having to pay a monetary fine, perform community service, or they could even be removed from housing. It depends on the severity of the student’s action,” Green says.

Evacuation drills are conducted approximately twice a semester at times when most students are present. Green says the drills have been pretty successful and the students cooperate.

Resident Advisors are trained on how to deal with fires and they receive extensive training from the fire department.

“We are taught how to use fire extinguishers and tips like put your hand on the door to see if it’s hot or don’t open the door if there’s a fire in the room,” Michael Rhodes, Residential Advisor of Delta 1, says. Before fire drills are conducted, students receive fire safety papers.

The rise in the number of student housing deaths has prompted the Princeton Review Web site to include fire safety ratings for schools across the country. The survey was developed by Princeton Review and the Center for Campus Fire Safety. Schools are rated on a scale from 60 to 99. A rating of 60 is automatically applied to schools who do not respond. Only 25 colleges who responded received a rating of 99.