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Fire Safety Hot Issue on U.S. Campuses

Brooke Burger

   The Public Safety Office approximately 50 fire calls every semester; however, only about 20 of those relate to actual incidents. The majority of reports the office oversees relate to alarm malfunctions, and the majority of actual incidents relate to smoke from a novice chef overcooking dinner.

   Despite the lack of serious fire incidents on campus, fires on and off campus pose a risk to students, faculty and staff who never received fire safety and prevention training or information.

   With every dormitory and apartment complex on campus housing over 100 students each, administration requires the residence halls to conduct at least one fire drill per semester to educate and prepare residents for evacuation procedures. The University also provides information on fire safety and what to do in case of a fire in the Student Handbook and Emergency Procedures Manual.

   However, the Campus Firewatch, a monthly, electronic newsletter in publication since May 2000, reported 12 students died in fires so far this academic year.  The 2006-2007 academic year marked the deadliest, with 20 fire fatalities among college students.

   Despite this being the deadliest school year for campus-related fires, Director of the Physical Plant Jim Hudgins said the majority of all fire alarms do not pose a serious threat, such as pranks, burnt food and hairspray, which will cause the smoke alarm to sound if it gets in the detector.

   "(About) 99.9 percent of all alarms we get are nuisance alarms," Hudgins said.

   In addition, Mitch Meredith, director of Residence Life, said in his three years overseeing the dormitories he witnessed only one serious fire concern.  A heater in a Maxwell Hall bathroom malfunctioned, causing the ceiling tiles to catch on fire. The residents put the fire out with an extinguisher and the Monticello Fire Department reported to the scene; however, no one was injured and the building only received minor damages.

   "We've been fortunate we haven't had anything serious happen," Meredith said.

   Though many fire alarms on campus do not pose a risk, Meredith said the university requires resident assistants to undergo fire safety training during their initial RA Training session. The fire safety training includes learning to operate a fire extinguisher effectively, conducting fire drills and clearing out the dorm rooms.

   In August, the Monticello Fire Department conducts a fire extinguisher training class for resident assistants.  The department sets a small fire and each assistant must put it out with the extinguisher. The RAs also learn how to check the building and make sure everyone is out of the dorm.  Meredith said they will even hide other students in the closets during training to make sure the assistants know to check the building thoroughly.

   While dealing with a serious issue, Meredith said the assistants like to have fun with the training.  He said many times the older RAs will not tell the new assistants about an upcoming fire drill.  This not only provides humor at times, but it also allows Meredith and the other assistants the chance to see how the new assistants will react in the case of a fire.

   "Training can be fun," he said.

   In addition to providing resident assistants with fire safety training, Residence Life also makes sure all students residing in dormitories or apartments on campus receive a copy of the dorm policy, which includes prohibited items that pose a fire risk such as candles, toasters, among other items.  The policy also includes information on what to do in case of a fire.

   Residence Life also conducts a fire drill at least once per semester.  However, Bankston Hall and the University Apartments have an alarm sound at least once a month due to nuisance alarms.  Also, at the beginning of the fall semester, resident assistants make sure each room in every dorm contains a fire escape route.

   Although Residence Life ensures students are aware of fire risks and fire safety procedures, the Firewatch reported over 80 percent of fire fatalities among college students occur off campus. Since January 2000, only 8 percent of fire fatalities occurred in residence halls, while 83 percent occurred in off-campus housing.

   In order to combat fire fatalities among college students on and off campus, Congress passed a bill to designate September as Campus Fire Safety Month.  The 110th Congress S. Res. 105 and H. Res. 95, state the Senate and the House encourage administrators of higher education institutions and municipalities to:

  • Provide educational programs about fire safety to all students during Campus Fire Safety Month and throughout the school year;

  • Evaluate the level of fire safety being provided in both on- and off-campus student housing; and

  • Take the necessary steps to ensure fire-safe living environments through fire safety education, installation of fire suppression and detection systems and the development and enforcement of applicable codes relating to fire safety.

   Since the adoption of the bill by the Senate March 14 and the House Jan. 24, 31 states made a proclamation to observe September as Campus Fire Safety Month.  While several southern states including, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama observed the month, Arkansas did not.

   Though the University did not participate in Campus Fire Safety Month, it does provide information to students, faculty and staff on fire safety and protocol in the Emergency Procedures Manual and continues to implement and improve fire prevention measures on campus.

   According to Hudgins, as the university upgrades and improves the buildings on campus through the Master Plan, it also ensures upgrades and improvements of the fire alarm systems.  One recent upgrade will guarantee someone on campus is alerted any time a fire alarm sounds, whether a building is empty or not.

   The Auto-Dialer System notifies Public Safety, the maintenance office and the on-duty boiler operator any time a fire alarm sounds with an automated message stating the location of the potential fire.  The alarm will continue to sound and the auto-dialer will continue to call until the call is answered or the fire alarm is reset.

   The university installed the system through SimplexGrinnell, a fire and security company that designs, engineers and installs fire alarm systems, as well as providing inspection, testing, maintenance and monitoring. The university maintains an annual contract with Simplex for repair, maintenance and testing.

   Hudgins said the maintenance office receives a report after each inspection by Simplex.  As well, the office keeps an inventory list of all fire safety equipment in each building, including heat detectors, smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, pull stations and fire extinguishers.

   Occupational Safety Coordinator Keith VanDee said every building on campus contains some type of fire fighting measure.  While all buildings do not contain fire alarms, every building does contain a fire extinguisher, which are checked monthly.

   VanDee also said the university collaborates with the Monticello Fire Department to offer fire extinguisher training for different departments on campus. The department head contacts VanDee, and he then coordinates with the fire department to set up the training session.

   Although the university and the fire department do not have the means to conduct a large training session, VanDee said he hopes more departments will participate in the fire extinguisher training.

   "I hope it will build momentum as more people hear about the opportunity," he said.

   VanDee is currently in the process of setting up a session for the Agriculture Department, and this semester held a session with the Fred J. Taylor Library and Technology Center staff.  Though the university did no participate in Campus Fire Safety Month, the library staff underwent fire extinguisher training Sep. 27.

   In addition to the Simplex system and the fire department trainings, a good resource for all members of the campus community lies within the Emergency Procedures Manual.

   "Folks should definitely read the emergency procedures manual, not just for fires but for all types of emergencies," VanDee said.  "There's no excuse for not being knowledgeable on what to do or how to prevent fires."

   According to the Emergency Procedures Manual, if the fire alarm sounds in any building or if notified by Public Safety, everyone should evacuate the building and move at least 500 feet from the building. 

   During a fire evacuation, never use the elevator.  If the fire alarm stops ringing, continue the evacuation.  As soon as the fire alarm sounds or Public Safety notifies the building, walk quickly to the nearest marked exit and ask others to do the same.

   The manual states that others should assist individuals who are disabled to exit the buildings.  It also states all evacuated persons should keep streets, fire lanes, hydrant areas and walkways clear for emergency vehicles and personnel.

   According to the Emergency Procedures Manual, in case of a fire, one should:

  • Confine the fire by closing, but not locking, all doors while leaving the building.

  • Report the fire and/or smoke by activating the nearest fire alarm.

  • Evacuate the building immediately.  Assist persons with disabilities.

  • Call Public Safety at telephone extension 1000 and have them alert the Monticello Fire Department.

  • State, “I want to report a fire,” and give your name, location of the fire including the building, floor and room number.

  • Do not attempt to fight the fire.

  • To move through a smoke-clouded area, drop to your knees and crawl to the nearest evacuation exit.

  • Notify both Public Safety and any authorized fire personnel if you suspect someone may be trapped inside the building.

  • If you become trapped in a building during a fire and a window is available, place an article of clothing outside the window as a marker for help.  If no window is visible, stay near the floor where the air is less smoky.  Shout at regular intervals to alert emergency personnel of your location.

   The University does train certain personnel in emergency preparedness, which includes training in emergency techniques such as fire extinguisher use, first aid, CPR and building evacuation procedures.  The Department of Public Safety also keeps training and information for fires available for the campus community.

   "The best way to not have a fire is to prevent it," VanDee said.

   Despite the preparedness to save residence halls and other buildings on campus, the training and information available to off-campus students remains limited. Though both off- and on-campus students can attend the fire department’s training sessions, information on the availability of these programs also remains limited.

   In order to serve all students, both on and off campus, as well as faculty, staff and other members of the campus community, the University could seek help and support from the Center for Campus Fire Safety in addition to the practices already in place.

   The Center for Campus Fire Safety states it is a “non-profit, tax free organization formed to provide a central focal point for campus fire safety issues.”  According to the Center’s mission, it works to raise awareness about campus fire safety through education and advocacy.

   The Center conducts its operations through funding from underwriting companies and organizations including National Fire Sprinkler Association, SimplexGrinnell, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and Underwriters Laboratories.

   Through its external funding, the Center can offer its services low-cost or free, which allows institutions with tight budgets to still receive the aid needed to increases fire safety awareness on college campuses.

   The Center helped introduce several bills relating to campus fire safety to Congress, including the Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act, the Campus Fire Safety Month bill, the College Fire Prevention Act and the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act.

   Located in Amherst, Mass., the Center hopes to educate students, parents and administrators in campus fire safety and encourage schools to provide higher levels of fire safety.  For more information, contact the Center at 303-947-1093 or visit its Web site.

   For more information on fire prevention and what to do in case of a fire, download a copy of the Get Out Stay Alive brochure issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Fire Administration. For more information on FEMA and USFA’s efforts in fire safety, visit the Web site.


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ŠThe Voice 2007
Revised 09/17/2007 08:12:03 PM —