Mike Thompson is a supervisory fire protection engineer in Gage-Babcock & Associates' Washington, D.C. office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is his first article for Facilities Manager.
Imagine heading to work on a cold but otherwise beautiful morning when you hear on the news that a fire has just occurred in one of your dormitories, killing three students and injuring another 62. This is exactly what happened to campus administrators and employees of Seton Hall University in New Jersey the morning of January 14, 2000. This fire, and several other recent fires with equally devastating effects, has resulted in increased awareness of fires in residential university facilities.
The early morning fire that engulfed the third-floor lounge of Seton Hall University's Boland Hall didn't last long and didn't destroy the building. In fact, the building sustained relatively little damage. The lounge and furnishings were much like those found in countless other student housing-type facilities throughout the country.
The fire, whose primary fuel source was a couch, rapidly grew, and with such intensity that it burned the paint off walls and doors and filled the building with smoke and toxic gases. Hearing screams for help and becoming aware of the smell of smoke, sleeping students realized that the fire alarms sounding in the building were not a fire drill or another nuisance alarm, but in fact the real thing. By this time however, it was too late for many students to evacuate without being exposed to the fire and its toxic byproducts.
On any campus, a dormitory fire of this magnitude-to require the services of a fire department to extinguish it-is a rare event. As such, it is natural to become complacent about fire safety, even going as far as crediting good fire safety practice or good luck. The United States Fire Administration reports that there are approximately 1,700 reported fires in U.S. dormitories and campus housing facilities each year.
It is important to understand that many more fires go unreported. These unreported fires are the ones that are extinguished by students or first responders such as campus police. They go unnoticed by local fire departments that are responsible for reporting such incidents. Although small, these fires have the same potential to turn a seemingly innocent event into tragedy.
Public Awareness and Expectations
Campus officials have the responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment for students, whether they are attending classes or taking a nap in their dorm room. In the wake of recent fatal dormitory and fraternity house fires, the public has become more conscious of fire safety on campuses. There is now a published checklist for parents to ask campus administrators specific questions relating to fire safety in dormitories.
In fact, there are at least four bills proposed by Congress this year concerning fire safety on campuses. One such bill, an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 titled "Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act," will, if enacted, require colleges and universities participating in any program under the bill to disclose fire safety standards and measures to all current and prospective students and employees. Some of the information that will have to be divulged include the number of fires, number of false alarms, level of fire safety training received and given, and whether or not dormitories, apartments, fraternities, and sororities are sprinklered.
The job of providing adequate fire safety in higher education facilities has never been under such scrutiny. A good campus fire safety program will include a balance between fire safety education and awareness to students and employees; strict enforcement of fire safety regulations; prevention; and adequate and maintained building fire protection features.
Training and enforcement programs are easy to implement and require marginal investment. However, training requires an educated and dedicated enforcement staff as well as constant maintenance. With high student turnover in campus housing, fire safety training becomes a continual effort. Training may also be considered marginally effective, particularly given the ages and the "I'm invincible" mindset of the typical campus student population.
Prevention is the fire safety program element that includes limiting potential fire sources and reducing the total fuel load that may exist. Although sources of ignition are numerous, a review of fire reports and investigative articles on campus fires indicates that arson, smoking, use of candles, cooking, and halogen lamps have become the primary sources of ignition in residential occupancies.
Coupled with limiting potential ignition sources, a good fire protection program should include a plan to minimize fuel sources. Potential fuel sources include overstuffed furniture, wall hangings and draperies, as well as ceilings and floor finishes. The quantity of this material, type, and installation configuration all affect the flammability of the material. For example, a certain type of carpet installed in accordance with the manufactures recommendations may be considered safe. However, the same carpet installed on the walls in the vertical position may result in a deadly flammable combination. There are standards to test interior finishes and their suitability for use in residential buildings.
Regardless of the training, enforcement, and prevention programs, building fire safety features must be addressed. No longer can administrators hang their hats on the age-old cliché of, "I don't need to make fire safety improvements to my dormitory because it met the code when it was built." Simply put, parents expect more for their children!
Many dormitory fire safety features can be improved without major financial implications or disruption to the buildings' occupants. In fact, my experience in surveying dormitories has confirmed that many, even those less than ten years old, are in need of fire safety improvements or maintenance and repair of existing fire safety features. Furthermore, there are many critical fire safety deficiencies that have historically contributed to high-profile residential fires that should be addressed even if the dormitory "met the codes" when it was built. The following are five examples of building features that have been reported to be major contributing factors in residential fires.
1. Stairwell Enclosures: Exit stairwells are required to be fire-rated enclosures to afford a protected path to the exterior during a fire emergency. It is common to find the stairwell enclosures violated with penetrations for conduits and pipe; stairwell enclosures that are not fire-rated; stairwell doors with non-rated plate glass windows; broken closers and latches; and doors propped open. These conditions have the potential to allow the spread of fire products such as smoke and toxic gases to other floors as well as preventing the use of the stairwells for their intended purpose: an egress from the building. In older dormitories and in fraternity and sorority houses, open stairs are common between floors. This was the case in the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill fraternity house fire that killed five students in 1996.
2. Open Shafts and Unprotected Vertical Openings: One of the paramount fire safety features of a building is to prevent the vertical spread of fire and fire products to other floors. In addition to stairwells, there are many residential buildings with numerous unprotected vertical openings between floors. This has been particularly prevalent in dormitories where electrical and plumbing improvements have been made, or where cable television and telecommunications networking has been installed without proper or adequate fire stopping.
3. Interior Finish: Today's building codes contain specific requirements for interior finishes, i.e., the materials applied to walls, ceilings, and floors. In residence halls that were constructed 30 to 50 years ago, it is common to find highly combustible materials attached to walls and ceilings. Most notable are wood fiber ceiling tiles attached to the structural floor above. These tiles alone, when exposed to a fire, will play a significant role in the development of the fire. Many times, an institution will install a new suspended ceiling below the existing one without removing the existing combustible tiles. This arrangement sets the scene for a potentially dangerous scenario that has occurred numerous times. A fire originating in the space above the suspended ceiling can go unnoticed, rapidly spreading and producing explosive gases, until it reaches such force as to almost explode down through the suspended ceiling.
In addition to the combustible ceiling tiles, combustible interior wall finish is common, most notably, inexpensive wood paneling, carpet, and textured wall finishings attached to walls. Most building codes have specific requirements for such interior finishes as they are installed. Wood paneling also has been determined to be a major contributing factor in the UNC fraternity house fire.
4. Missing or Violated Fire Separations: One method, very common in older buildings, to prevent or limit the spread of a fire was the installation of fire separations or enclosures. Typically, this type of protection consisted of fire-rated enclosures around rooms containing large quantities of combustibles, fire-rated corridors, and fire- rated walls separating floors into separate fire areas. If doors have been removed or replaced with non-rated fire doors, closers and latches removed, or the fire-rated walls violated with penetrations, these enclosures will not provide the protection originally anticipated and will greatly increase the potential for a disaster.
5. Inadequate Fire Protection Systems: Building and fire codes applicable to buildings built 30 years ago required very little fire protection systems. More likely than not, the only fire protection systems required were manual fire alarm systems. Smoke detectors were in their early stages of development and fire suppression sprinkler systems were being installed only for property protection. In the past 30 years, remarkable efforts have occurred in the development of fire alarm and sprinkler systems.
Many facilities have since installed battery-operated smoke detectors in individual dorm rooms. Their sole purpose is to notify occupants of a fire within the room. These smoke detectors do not initiate the building evacuation system or initiate alarm notification to the local fire department. System detectors, which historically have been prone to false alarms, can now sense specific smoke conditions and adjust themselves to environmental conditions that typically resulted in unwanted alarms. As a result, false alarms, except those identified as mischief, can be greatly reduced with today's new fire alarm systems.
Many educational institutions are initiating programs to install system smoke detectors in individual dormitory rooms to act as single-station smoke detectors for smoke within the room. These are typically arranged to initiate the building evacuation alarms if not reset in a given time period or if a second fire alarm device goes into alarm mode.
Sprinkler systems, like fire alarm systems, have undergone major technological improvements in the last 20 years. No longer are sprinklers being justified for property protection, but rather, life safety. In fact, the National Fire Protection Association (www.nfpa.org) reports that there has never been a multiple death fire in a sprinklered building. New technology has enabled sprinklers to detect and suppress a fire long before it becomes a threat to building occupants.
In many cases, sprinkler systems are being retrofitted into existing campus housing facilities as a result of state or local legislation. In other cases, sprinklers are being retroactively installed to provide compensating features or an equivalency to correcting some other building fire safety deficiency or simply to improve the level of safety in the building. Today, in areas without mandated sprinklers legislation, campus administrators must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of such installations.
Unfortunately, with the installation of fire protection systems comes maintenance. Next to prisons, a campus residence hall has the reputation for the worst abuse of fire protection systems. Fire protection systems have design features that can be implemented into installation that will help minimize abuse. Two such features include the use of concealed or tamper-resistant sprinklers. However, such features should be thoroughly investigated and discussed with system designers prior to final design. Once installed, repair of damaged fire protection systems and scheduled maintenance are necessary evils that must be strictly implemented.
Those who have experienced fires on campus know that the combined direct and indirect loss far exceeds the direct monetary loss to the building, not including the adverse press and its financial fallout. Relocation and housing of displaced students is an enormous burden. The tragic fire at Longwood College in Virginia in April 2001 is an example of the disastrous consequences of a fire. The blaze, which occurred around 9:30 p.m., forced the evacuation of 400 students from adjacent dormitories. It began in a complex of historical classroom and office buildings undergoing a major renovation. In addition to destroying the school's signature building, the fire caused extensive damage to the campus infrastructure, required the evacuation of four residence halls, and caused the cancellation of classes and final exams. Press reports indicate that one dormitory is still off line undergoing repairs, and that it won't be ready for occupancy until the spring semester 2002.
Given the relatively rare occurrence of fires in residence halls, few people outside of the fire protection profession have experience or can appreciate the subtle differences of building features that can contribute to or propagate a small fire into becoming one of disastrous proportions. Even fewer people can appreciate the speed at which a fire can develop into such a magnitude as to block escape routes or overcome sleeping occupants if appropriate fire safety features are not present or have become compromised. Given the right combination of fuel and air, fires in residential occupancies can reach deadly proportions within three minutes of ignition.
Awareness of campus fire safety has never been so public as it is today. As a result, campus administrators and housing officials have been challenged to review the existing fire and life safety features in residential facilities and to develop as well as implement improvement plans. This is necessary if they are to provide a level of safety consistent with the public interest. Such plans should include evaluations and improvements to existing training and prevention programs, enforcement procedures, fire protection systems, and building fire safety features maintenance programs, as well as plans to provide fire and life safety improvements deemed necessary to improve survivability.