College Dormitory Fire Safety: Circa 2000

Francis L. Brannigan examines fire safety concerns in the aftermath of fatal fires involving student housing.


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...


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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.

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