College Dormitory Fire Safety: Circa 2000

After the recent Seton Hall University dormitory fire in which three students died and a number of others were injured, some seriously, I was asked by Firehouse® to write on the subject.

The first material at hand was the Operation Life Safety Bulletin of July/August 1999, which contained the winning essay in a contest, “Why Campus Housing Should Have Fire Sprinklers, by Kathleen Grant of Huntington, WV. She reported on several fires at major universities and commented, “Students who have scored high enough on the SAT to be accepted by MIT, Yale and Duke caused fires. They must be bright, yet they committed stupid acts leading to the destruction of property and the risk of human life.”

It is not only students who are ignorant of or unreceptive to fire safety. College mangers often lack a fundamental understanding of the fire problem, possibly because it is considered too menial for their attention or they resent some other authority telling them how to spend THEIR money. At Princeton University, professors – world leaders in the physical sciences – attempted to inert a huge room, which was open to the atmosphere, with portable CO2 extinguishers because of fear of “water damage.” The fire chief of the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ, traveled 60 miles to put the fire out in 90 seconds.

Students are naturally rebellious and resist rules. Like many older people, they place great reliance on their own experiences and reject out of hand precautions based on blood and tears shed elsewhere. Therefore, the only real fire protection for them is automatic sprinklers and smoke detectors in any area where people sleep.

In my experience, scientists and many administrators are born with a severe prejudice against using water on fires. When a fire at the Livermore Laboratory was stopped just short of dispersing enough radioactive material to contaminate the place out of existence, they were organizing committees to control experiments. I argued that they were cutting their throats in the research field and that if they would only sprinkler the buildings, they could work with anything short of dynamite. They were unimpressed until I declaimed, “Automatic sprinklers give academic freedom…” They cheered and drowned out the three last words “…to do stupid things.”

Automatic sprinklers free the decent, responsible students who will probably contribute to society from death by idiots who smoke while drunk, go to sleep with candles or incense burning , bring hazardous materials into their dorm rooms, or even set fires “just for fun.” Educational programs are fine, but unfortunately soon forgotten.

extinguishers no help?

When this subject is discussed, much is sometimes made about fire extinguishers. I spent a number of years on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Portable Extinguisher committee and looked hard for cases in which extinguishers made an effective difference. There were few, and they probably were balanced by the number of times the futile use of extinguishers delayed the sounding of the alarm.

Some years ago, the University of Maryland tired of extinguishers being used as moron playtoys and took them all out. A reporter rushed to the campus to get the opinions of students. One said, “I don’t feel safe without an extinguisher in the hall.” Unfortunately, there was no one there to toss him one and say, “Show us how to use it.” The answer might have been, “I can’t read the directions. I took off my glasses to look better on TV.”

We expect an untrained civilian in ordinary clothes (or less) to tackle a fire with a 1/8th-inch stream – to send a firefighter that close, we provide thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. In today’s fast-burning toxic plastic environment, the opportunity window to use an extinguisher effectively and safely is very narrow. Fire creates a deadly environment and the students should get away from it as fast as they can.

arson is leading cause

There have been a number of disastrous fires in college dormitories. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports an estimated 1,700 dormitory fires occur each year. The most prevalent cause is arson, proven or suspected. Years ago, college administrators often refused to accept arson as the cause of such fires, feeling that such a crime was beneath the intellectual college community.

The Princeton Cyclotron fire in 1950 occurred in a pre-war “Model T” cyclotron. Carnegie Tech and Rochester were getting brand-new, up-to-date cyclotrons from the Atomic Energy Commission. A burned cyclotron would be replaced by a new model. The focusing magnets had been left on, a deviation from procedure, but this had been pronounced impossible. When I suggested arson, the magnets became the cause of the fire.

Nowadays, arson can be cited to excuse poor management, because of our national focus on the CAUSE OF THE FIRE instead of THE CAUSE OF THE DISASTER, WHICH OFTEN INVOLVES MANAGEMENT CULPABILITY.

2 College Fires Stand Out In The Number Of Deaths

Providence College
Providence, RI
Dec. 13, 1977– 2:47 A.M.
The building was a high-rise dormitory of protected non-combustible construction. Major building deficiencies were:

  • Dead-end corridors.
  • The design of the heating system. Room air returned to the corridor through louvers in the doors.
  • No self closers on doors.
  • High-density (think Masonite) ceiling finish concealed above the suspended mineral tile ceiling.

The corridors and room partitions were of masonry. The corridors were lined with Christmas decorations for a contest involving both rooms and corridors. Material included natural Christmas trees and paper on walls and ceilings. Masking tape was “rolled” to provide an attachment which left about a half inch of air space behind the paper, thus accelerating combustion. Obviously, the administration was totally unaware of the potential for deadly flame spread.

The fire started in a fourth-floor room occupied by three girls. They opened the window, thus providing air which spread the fire to the corridor. Sadly, two of the girls jumped as fire apparatus arrived. The third stayed in the room and was rescued by ladder, uninjured.

When firefighters reached the fourth floor, the fire was almost out. The paper was mostly consumed. The fiberboard above the ceiling was not involved, probably there was not enough sustained heat. There was enough heat and smoke to kill eight young women, frighten two into jumping to their deaths and injure several others.

The 60-plus-foot-long, one-way-out, dead-end corridor was involved in four of the deaths, though one girl who was injured made a run for the stairway early in the fire and survived.

I have checked with Battalion Chief Curt Varone of the Providence Fire Department and learned that the building is now sprinklered and the dead end corridor situation corrected.

Cornell University
Ithaca, NY
9 Die In Dormitory Fire
(Note: The material in parentheses is mine.)
The dormitory was a fire-resistive two-story and basement building. There was much combustible plywood finish, furred out with wood strips, thus providing two fire surfaces. Combustible acoustical ceilings had been removed, but the hazard of the plywood was unrecognized.

At 4 A.M., 69 students were sleeping. The fire originated in the basement lounge (smoking?). The doors had been removed from the stairway on the second floor for shortening to accommodate carpeting, but the basement doors were wedged open. (The wedged-open door is a perennial problem. The only solution is the door held open by a magnetic latch that is tripped by smoke detectors on both sides of the doorway.) There was no alarm system.

The Cayuga Heights Volunteer Fire Department responded and on arrival requested mutual aid from the Ithaca Fire Department. (Automatic first-alarm mutual aid should be in place for any building that presents a major life hazard. I am unaware if it would have made a difference in this case.)

Nine victims died, all of asphyxiation. The professor who telephoned the alarm to university security was among the victims. The building was sprinklered and Cornell adopted a proactive fire safety program. At FDIC, I spoke with a person close to the situation and it appears that the memory of the disaster has faded and the fire safety program has been greatly reduced.

The Code Problem

It has been reported that the State of New Jersey has taken over the inspection authority of the South Orange Fire Department on the Seton Hall campus because the last inspection showed no problems. I know nothing of the details, but I will say that very often an inspection centers on violations of the CODE. Here I will cite two instances of how inspecting to the CODE did not produce safety to the occupants.

Some years ago, we delivered a bright granddaughter to a major North Carolina university for a special summer program for gifted high school students. The dormitory hall ceilings were finished in combustible acoustical tile glued up to the surface. This is extremely hazardous – fire can spread faster than a person can run. Tall plastic rubbish containers in the halls were full to overflowing, providing ready fuel to ignite the ceiling. All the rooms had deadly transoms and most were open for ventilation. The stage was set for a terrible disaster.

Fortunately, outside fire escapes had been added to the building and the entrance to one was right opposite our granddaughter’s room. I bought a smoke detector, installed it over the door on the corridor side, closing the transom in the process, and instructed the girls in the action to be taken if the alarm sounded: Heads down, open the door running, hit the panic bar on the exit and keep going.

I immediately wrote a two-page letter to the university expressing my concerns. They were most appreciative and promised to take action. The following quote is most interesting, but unfortunately not surprising: “Our Safety Office has looked at the acoustical tile and agrees with your recommendation that it be replaced. In fact we hired an architectural firm to do an exhaustive study in 1973 of safety and BUILDING CODE deficiencies (caps supplied) in our dormitories and this item should have been picked up and corrected at that time.”

Here I can only surmise. Was the architectural firm ignorant of the flame-spread hazard? Based on my experience, very likely, particularly with respect to existing buildings. Or was “CODE” the key word?

“Grandfather” clauses that permit the continuing existence of known hazards are common in codes. Essentially, they represent the thinking of those who put property rights above human rights. Retrospective safety requirements to existing buildings are not “unconstitutional,” though building interests often make this argument to uninformed legislators. Professor Vincent Brannigan, JD, of the Fire Protection Engineering Department at UMD, will be happy to provide legal citations for you if this argument is used.

My children attended a parochial school lined with combustible tile. When I protested,the principal triumphantly produced the last inspection report. The only deficiency noted was a cracked glass in the occupancy sign!

The fire marshal’s idiotic bureaucratic defense was that they couldn’t report anything that wasn’t illegal! As is often the case, there was a RIGHT reason and a REAL reason. In fact, the reason was that the county school board had spent about $2 million putting in combustible tile and would be embarrassed if the county passed a law against it. They promised to take it out quietly during two summers if the fire marshal would not go for legislation. The tile was removed after the situation was brought to the archbishop.

If “grandfathered” hazards are a problem in your area, I urge that you add a section to your report: “The following conditions are hazardous, but not illegal because the code unfortunately refers only to new construction. For the safety of the occupants we urge that the following action be taken.” Then let the management know informally that such a report would be fatal to their defense in the inevitable negligence lawsuits after a fire. Mere compliance with the code is no defense to negligence, particularly when the hazard has been pointed out by competent authority. (I am a grandfather of 14. “Grandfathers” are kindly senior citizens who give their grandchildren candy and later help them go to college. I don’t like the kindly word “grandfather” being used to describe maintaining conditions known to be unsafe.)

When sprinklers are recommended in existing buildings, the cost is often cited as prohibitive. Be sure to make the owner distinguish between the cost of sprinklers and the cost of hiding the system for aesthetic reasons. We want only the sprinklers. Aesthetics is his problem. Why not paint the pipes red and put up signs “You are incredibly safer from fire in this building because of the sprinkler system”?

The historic Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, CO, was retrofitted with exposed sprinkler piping. I stood at the desk as scores of guests were registered. I heard no one say “Honey, let’s go to another hotel. This one has exposed sprinkler piping.”

A Survivor’s Letter

A powerful letter appeared on the Internet shortly after the Seton Hall Fatal fire. It is printed here verbatim with misspellings and Internet shorthand. I was heartened to see the evidence that it had been relayed to many other colleges. It would be worth while to get into the hands of every dormitory resident.

Note among other items that the writer’s roommate was going to hide in the closet because she had heard that the administration was going to check on those who stayed in rooms. Firefighters know to look under beds and in closets for little children who don’t know better. We had best include this practice in SOPs for dormitory fires.

She changed her clothes. Some years ago, I investigated a garden apartment fire. There had been a wild party. A woman’s husband went to his car to sleep. Her boyfriend went to sleep on the couch. He awoke with the couch in flames and jumped out over the balcony. The fire was alarmed by the tenant next door when the fire, which burned down through the floor, came up along side his bed. The wife and another woman went to the closet to get suitable clothes. They were found dead at the closet.

Hi everyone! I’m writing to you to tell you what happened at my dorm since some of you wanna know the story ...

It was 4:30am and I was about to go to sleep. My roomate Becky was already sleeping. The fire alarm went off so I tried to wake her up. Although we never go out for them b/c we have so many fake ones, I had a feeling about this one b/c it was out of the blue. Also, we had a floor meeting a few days before and my RA said that they are gonna check every room to make sure everyone goes out. I had to fight with Becky to go outside. She was saying that she was gonna hide in the closet. Eventually she got up, went to the bathroom, and changed her clothes. When she was in the bathroom she looked outside to see if there were any people outside and she said there weren’t so she wasn’t going. I had to tell her off to get her outside. Finally, she was gonna go so I played mommy making sure that she had her coat, gloves, shoes, and of course....cigarettes. Then I went to my friends room across the hall and banged on their door....thinking they were already outside b/c I knew they were awake. Right before I was about to go outside, they opened the door. They were pretending to be sleeping. Then I told them off and told them to hurry up b/c it was real. Then I went to the next door and did the same thing.

When we were in the hallway of my floor about to go downstairs, we started to see a lot of gray smoke. I thought it was just someone stupid who lit a smoke bomb. Then we walked down the stairs to the 3rd floor (I live on the 4th) and it was all black. I was in shock … just standing there, looking at it, and breathing it in. That’s when Becky became my mommy. She yelled at me to cover my face and to keep walking. The smoke was so heavy that I became lightheaded. I couldn’t imagine actually being where the fire was … I probably would’ve passed out.

Finally we got outside and walked around to the front of the building. That’s when it was the most scary. There were a few girls hanging out of their window...screaming for help with a huge cloud of black smoke behind them. Becky said “let’s get out of here … whatever we see is gonna be bad.” There were no fire trucks here yet so we didn’t know how long they would last. Finally one came and a huge crowd of people jumped in front of it pointing at the girls. They were gonna go to the other side of the building. They yelled for anyone to help and a bunch of guys ran to assist them. Eventually they got the girls out. Then we just stood outside for hours in the cold worrying if everyone was ok. While standing there … we talked to a kid who jumped out of his 3rd floor window. He was limping and his clothes were all ripped. Also … kids who got out early enough, ran across the street to some mans house and woke him up and he brought over a ladder which saved dozens of kids.

I was home for a week wearing only the clothes on my back. I had no money, no liscence, no make-up, nothing. I went home wearing slippers. Ironically, I had to bring everything to school because we are moving out of my house. Everything I owned was at school.

Now I just got back to school and things are very different. A lot of people moved out and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors north are in a hotel. It’s not ever gonna be the same. Luckily, none of my things are ruined. I actually think they cleaned up our room a little bit. I had beer in the room, and it ended up hidden behind my bed and our window fan was out.

I just wanted to let you know to take the fire alarms seriously!!! Even if it is just a drill. On the news … I heard about a fire alarm in another dorm on campus going off and some girl from Seton Hall said that the fire alarm went off and she looked out the window, saw no fire trucks so went back to bed. Obviously, some people haven’t learned … even when a real fire killed some people on her campus.

Thank you all for being so concerned. It means a lot.

Feel free to forward this if anyone asks.


A Really Great U S F A Video

The U.S. Fire Administration has produced a first-class 16-minute video, “Get Out And Stay Alive,” on the subject of residential fire safety for college students.

The video presents students who have good and poor understanding of the fire problem, in their own words, and then gently straightens them out. For instance, the student who said, “I’d go looking for a fire extinguisher” was told, “Don’t waste time – get out.” The short time to safety is stressed.

Copies of the video have been distributed widely in college circles. Ten copies were provided to each state fire marshal. Like all U.S. government publications there is no copyright so you can freely copy it and give a copy to whoever can use one.

Francis L. Brannigan, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a Fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SPFE) and was a fireground commander from 1942 to 1949. Since 1966, he has concentrated on the hazards of buildings to firefighters. His 667-page Building Construction For The Fire Service (3rd Edition) is available from NFPA, (800) 344-3555.