Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)

Residence Hall Fires

A quick search of January 2015 fire incidents involving college students indicates that one of the greatest risks to life and campus property continues to be a fire in a residence hall. In the same month the 15th anniversary of the Seton Hall fire is observed there were seven reported residential-related fires. Kitchen fires continue to be listed as the most common fire; heater fires and arson were also observed.

Remembering Seton Hall

As a result of the Seton Hall fire, most campus-based residential facilities in the nation are now equipped with fire alarm and fire sprinkler systems — this has certainly led to a reduction in the loss of life and injuries on campus. Traditional campus-operated housing, as well as the expanding third-party operated campus housing model, can all agree that notification and suppression systems are an investment that pay off for increased safety, as well as financially. Other forms of fire protection — fire doors and fire-rated barriers — have also seen increased attention in housing operations. Across the nation housing operations have invested significant financial resources to engineer fire safety into their areas of influence.

Then why are we still experiencing fires in residence halls? Talking with individuals at the two leading campus fire safety meetings this last year indicate that while there has been a reduction, new technologies need to be incorporated into housing operations to further reduce fires and focused behavior-based training that includes a measurement of the students understanding of fire safety within the environment they live will help. As facilities staff we are charged with identifying, installing and maintaining equipment in our buildings that help support the mission and needs of the users in the building. We are asked by administrators and expected by those who use our buildings to make every effort to ensure the activities that take place within the walls can be completed as needed and in a safe manner.

Recognize the Ongoing Risk

To meet the expectations, we need to recognize the great risk cooking still poses on campus and incorporate engineered solutions to reduce the risk of cooking fires. Fifteen years ago, housing operations reacted to the Seton Hall fire with improved alarm systems and fire sprinklers. Now its time to take the next step and stop cooking fires before they get to the point of activating the alarm or sprinkler system.

There are engineering solutions to accomplish the goal of reducing cooking-fire incidents. There may not be a fire code to mandate these solutions — 15 years ago there weren’t many codes requiring sprinklers in housing operations either. Some universities simply said, “We need to do better,” and sprinkled. These institutions were leaders 15 years ago and now need to lead again. Will your institution be considered a leader and install devices on stoves and microwaves that shut down when left unattended or when occupants are impaired or distracted?

If your housing, facilities or fire prevention staff have attended any conferences where fire prevention was discussed they are most likely aware that there are engineering solutions to further reduce the risk of cooking fires. Several legal experts are now tying awareness of the ability to mitigate a risk (knowledge of engineered solutions) into legal proceedings where these technologies could have prevented injuries. The legal community is looking at cooking fires and asking: Why didn’t the building operator take actions to mitigate a known risk? They are demonstrating that the building operator (campus) did not desire a harmful consequence, but did not take action on a foreseeable event. Housing facilities operators must take the necessary steps to stop a known event from happening.

Take Action

There are hundreds of campus housing cooking fires that have injured students, staff and first responders. Those injured are claiming that there was recklessness on part of the operator since they did not take all actions they could have to reduce or eliminate the risk. Those campuses that are leaders recognize that there is no longer time to wait for a code to mandate incorporating engineered solutions to reduce cooking fires. They are taking proactive steps to avoid legal liability should there be a fire that they know they could have taken steps to mitigate.

Let’s take the 15th anniversary of the Seton Hall fire as the impetus to take the bold steps campus fire safety took in 2000 and make a renewed effort to incorporate engineered solutions to eliminate the risk of cooking fires in housing facilities.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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