Residence Hall Fires

Halloween 1998 will not soon be forgotten by students at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., where decorations in one of the residence halls fueled a fire that gutted the building, resulting in $850,000 in damage and leaving more than 30 students temporarily without a place to live. Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured, and college administrators have used what could have been a tragic experience to teach students to recognize fire risk.

The Haunted Hazard

Some of the residents of Oberg Hall were planning a Halloween party and constructed a "haunted house" using wood, moss, palm fronds and other flammable materials in the public areas of the building. "In its intent, it was very wholesome," notes Tom Miller, dean of students and vice president for student affairs. "But it was clearly a fire hazard."

After the construction was spotted the next day by custodial staff, college administrators ordered the students to take it apart and remove it. Ironically, while the students were meeting outside the building to divide the work of dismantling the construction, the fire began. Its source is unknown, but the flames spread quickly, fueled by the materials of the haunted house.

Eckerd’s fire prevention policies had been clearly spelled out in the student handbook. "We have traditional standards associated with fire prevention," Miller explains. Among these were policies about permissible electrical equipment, protection of fire alarm and fire extinguishing equipment, and maintenance of hallway and stairwell egress.

There were also policies about the hazards associated with Christmas lights. "But in terms of decorations in public areas, policies didn’t govern that at the time," Miller says.

The new college handbook will include a statement about construction. "Any effort at a building or construction program must be signed off on by the college for safety, security and general welfare of the student body," Miller says.

Risky Residents

Of course, hindsight is always 20-20. "I think it’s a mistake to think that we can write regulations that foresee all possible developments," Miller says. "I can write a policy that protects us nicely against the same occurrence, but I leave open the path for a hundred other occurrences that would jeopardize the safety of our students. The challenge that we have, in my view, is to train and supervise staff to be alert to student behavior or conditions in the community that create risk, hazard or unsafe conditions."

Immediately after the fire, college officials consulted with the local fire marshal about strategies to improve students’ recognition of fire hazards throughout the holiday season and during annual training of student housing staff. "Conversations with students focused on thinking about what was learned from the experience and looking forward to other decorating and entertainment activities in terms of what creates hazard," Miller says. "Training has focused on common sense and the principles associated with fire safety rather than letter of the law."

While the college is using the lessons learned in the Halloween fire to reduce risk, it also is taking steps to improve fire protection. Oberg was one of 28 residence halls built in the early- to mid-1960s without sprinkler systems. Several years ago, the college began the phased installation of sprinkler systems in residence halls across campus, and eight halls have been retrofitted to date. At the time of the fire, Oberg had not been retrofitted, but the newly refurbished hall will include a sprinkler system.

Sprinklers and Other Considerations

According to a 1998 report by the National Fire Protection Association, "Automatic sprinklers are highly effective elements of total systems designs for fire protection in buildings. When sprinklers are present, the chances of dying in a fire and the average property loss per fire are cut by one-half to two-thirds." The report also noted that use of sprinkler systems is still low in some kinds of high-occupancy buildings, including educational facilities, where sprinklers were present in only 21.9 percent of reported fires.

That may be changing, according to Michael Madden, PE, manager of the Los Angeles office of Gage Babcock & Associates, a consulting engineering firm that specializes in fire protection, life safety and security. "We are seeing today that facilities are going in with high levels of protection; we are seeing good fire alarm systems and sprinklered facilities," Madden says. "A lot of campuses are going back and planning for retrofits of fire alarm and sprinkler systems in existing facilities."

Often a college begins to take a look at its fire protection system when an aging fire alarm system, no longer supported by the manufacturer, becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. Sometimes the upgrade of an alarm to meet ADA requirements prompts a fresh look. "When you start getting into this kind of work, it’s a good time to think about your system as a whole," Madden says.

It’s all part of an effort to provide a comprehensive fire protection system, Madden says, one that effectively provides detection, control and notification.

A new alarm system, sprinkler system and smoke detectors in individual sleeping rooms provide all three elements of protection. Smoke detectors are often the first devices to warn residents of a fire. But sprinklers also detect fire and activate the building’s alarm system when water begins to flow. "The residential sprinklers now being installed are much quicker acting than commercial sprinkler heads," Madden says. "The sprinkler system’s interface with the fire alarm system transmits alarms either off-site or to a campus dispatch facility and summons emergency forces immediately."

Today’s systems are a far cry from the old electromechanical technology. "Today’s systems are all electronic and software-based, which allows a lot more flexibility, networking and integration with other campus systems - security, building management and access control," Madden says. "Responding fire and security personnel can know exactly which room a smoke detector has gone off in, for example, and can even pull up information about the residents – whether they are disabled, for example."

This Way to the Egress

Most exit hardware has been around a long time. But new devices are available to address some common problems in residence halls, and may be considered if local codes permit. Delayed exit hardware, for example, is designed to improve security at an emergency exit. A time delay on the panic bar keeps the door locked briefly, perhaps 15 seconds, before allowing it to open, all the while sounding the alarm. This is designed to alert security in the event of an attempt by a thief or other intruder to flee. Most are required to be tied into a sprinkler or fire alarm system, which disables the delay feature in the event of a fire. Another device that is designed to be tied into the fire alarm system allows students to leave stairwell doors open (on the theory that they’ll prop them open anyway), shutting them automatically if the fire alarm system is activated.

But no fire protection system is a panacea. "The fire marshal told us that a sprinkler system would have done little good in this instance," says Miller, reflecting on Eckerd’s Halloween fire. "Sprinkler systems are designed to address a certain anticipated ‘fuel load’ in a fire. This fire, because of the interior student-constructed project, had such an excess of fuel, a sprinkler system would have been ineffectual. This is, of course, not to suggest that a sprinkler system is not a great idea in older buildings; it just doesn’t replace the need to educate occupants and have them be alert to risks."

Dorothy Wright is an Ardmore, Pa.-based writer and communication consultant with experience in education issues.

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