On January 19th, 2000, a
fire in a dormitory at Seton Hall University killed three 18-year-old Seton
Hall students and injured 62 others. The fire erupted early in the
morning leaving college students to grope in the smoke and into the freezing
cold. Several students were seriously injured. One suffered third-degree
burns over most of his body. Another student suffered third-degree burns
on his lower back and hands when he lost consciousness inside the dormitory
on January 19th.
Originally, prosecutors treated
the fire as an arson investigation from the beginning, finding no signs,
such as faulty electrical wiring, to suggest an accident. The fire remains
unsolved. Investigators have determined how the fire started - an open
flame from a lighter or match burned flammable material on a couch in the
lounge, causing a hot, quick moving fire that pushed smoke through the
dormitory corridors hot enough to cause third-degree burns.
Ironically, many of the 640
residents of Boland Hall heard a fire alarm earlier in the morning. Most
did not pay attention to the alarm. Just another false alarm.
College students past and present know it well. Blaring sirens and flashing
lights. Racing fire trucks and firefighters who seem to get pleasure forcing
everyone to leave their rooms until they say they can return. It had happened
18 times since the beginning of the school year in the six story dormitory.
The fire that started on
the third floor quickly spread without sprinklers checking the fire's growth.
Two of the three male students killed were found in the lounge and the
other was found in a bedroom nearby. The 48-year-old building was
equipped with smoke alarms and protable extinguishers but no sprinkler
The tragedy at the 10,000
student school became a catalyst for campus fire safety debates across
the nation and led to a state law requiring fire sprinklers in all college
dorm rooms. Sprinklers were installed in every Seton Hall dormitory, including
Boland Hall, at a cost of $7 million.
But the real job, many campus
officials say, is getting some students to respect the importance of those
fire prevention efforts. To combat pranksters and those who fail to evacuate
during alarms, many colleges and universities have resorted to imposing
stiffer penalties and installing what many in campus housing call "crime
George Washington University
watched the number of false fire alarms on its campus plummet after posting
surveillance cameras at each dormitory pull station in 1993. The University
of Cincinnati has reported similar success this year after installing covers
on pull stations in every residence hall.
Universities usually have
a security officer respond to automatic fire alarms, before the fire department
is dispatched, to reset the bells or investigate. If it is a fire, then
the officer calls the fire department. Needless to say valuable time is
Difficulty accounting for all occupants
The fire department or the
college may know how may students are assigned to a room or floor but what
about guests or those that have gone elsewhere and did not notify anyone?
Trash chutes can deceive
the initial crews. There may be a smoke condition on an upper floor
but the fire is in the dumpster in a lower level.
It will be hard to deploy
lines and evacuate at the same time in the same stairwells
Limited truck access
Many dormitories have court
yards, vegetation, or other obstructions making truck placement a challenge.
There may be fire department
connection in different locations. This may require additional engine companies
to cover the connections
Steel doors, fire rated doors
Dorms usually steel doors
or fire rated wood doors to rooms. While usually they're our friend, they
are hard to force, time consuming and will trap a lot of people.
Nobody likes to admit they
had a fire. It's possible to cover up small fires to keep a sharper image.
Providing fire protection
in a college setting is definitely a challenge. Problems arise with
alarms becoming common place.... pull station activations, students discharging
dry chemical extinguisher in dorm hall ways lead to apathy of other
students. Students are then conditioned to ignore a activated alarm.
All of these present the need
for more personnel in performing searches for students, ventilating the
building and handling the fire at hand. The problems are not much different
that responding to any multistory apartment or residency building.
||Arriving companies are meeting
with students milling about hallways and stairwells. At the same time,
the fire department must maintain a level of readiness and not become lax
when responding to repetitive automatic alarms. Fires in multistory dorm
buildings, even when the fire is minor, may have smoke that can be very
difficult to remove. Most newer construction buildings have HVAC systems
that don't necessitate the need for windows be operable.
The same problems that occur
in the college dormitory setting can occur in any other residential building,
nursing homes, prisons, senior citizen's projects. What sets the college
dorms apart from those buildings are the occupants inside.... teenagers
who often have no fear of death and the chance of a life-threatening is
not even a remote concern. To complicate problems, often buildings are
of high rise construction making access to upper floors more difficult
to access and can complicate evacuation of the building.
"We recently had a high rise
fire in a building that was not sprinkled, " said Cecil Cornish, Public
Information Officer with Titusville FL Fire and Rescue. "The fire was a
room and contents on the sixth floor and smoked the entire floor. One of
our crews, with an experienced Lieutenant. got lost as soon as he stepped
in the hallway. The arriving commander assumed command and immediately
called for help. Mutual aid was requested from the surrounding areas and
staff was notified by pager. Having the extra personnel on scene
most likely kept the injuries minor. Setting up command and using
support staff for positions in IC also kept the chaos to a minimum.
We also used the Police department to assist us with command functions.
They were present and we
put them to work," said the PIO.
|"The best approach to any fire is preplanning
and training. Every time we respond to a multi-company alarm we set
up command until we are satisfied that the call is false. After years
of this policy setting up command is second nature."
Cecil Cornish, PIO
Titusville Fire and Rescue
While colleges and universities
exercise control over buildings they own and maintain, the problem often
extends beyond the campus boundaries. The University of Scranton
(PA) has an enrollment 4,000 of which 80% live on/near campus and
nearby Maywood University has an enrollment of 3,000 students.
Most of the resident students
reside on campus in school housing but other live in substandard housing
often taking advantage of college student who wish to leave the dorms for
one or more reasons.
"In my experience there is
a greater threat to loss of life in off campus housing. These off campus
housing units are harder to control due to the fact some landlords rent
to many more students than a building can legally have, " said Dave Schrieber,
a Lieutenant on Scranton Fire Department's Rescue 1.
In 1999, a fire in an off campus
fraternity house near Bloomsburg University (PA) killed three people
while others jumped to safety from a second story window. Six male fraternity
members were sleeping in the Tau Kappa Epsilon house when the fire broke
out about 6 a.m. Another fraternity house fire killed five Bloomsburg students
on Oct. 21, 1994. A smoldering sofa was blamed for that blaze. Batteries
had been taken out of smoke detectors in the Beta Sigma Delta house, a
common practice during smoky parties.
||"There are times when arriving
on scene of a structure fire call it turns out there is a large number
of temporary renters (friends of tenants) living in the structure. This
illegal practice has some people on floors that there is only one means
of egress. Also, when conducting primary searches many mattress are strewn
around the apartments which makes for a difficult search. Accountability
of who might be in the structure is very difficult at best," Schrieber
In Pennsylvania, the State
System of Higher Education (SSHE) Board of Governors approved a plan to
require sprinklers or other automatic fire suppression systems to be installed
in all of the residence halls of the 14 state owned campuses within five
years. Approximately 33,000 students in 147 residence halls will be protected
from a tragedy like the one that struck Seton Hall.
A resolution was introduced
requiring the Legislative Budget & Finance Committee to conduct a feasibility
study of municipalities establishing and implementing ordinances to identify
high-rise buildings and college dormitories that lack fire protection systems,
to require the installation of such systems, and to make a report to the
Labor & Industry Committee.
Ironically, the resolution
passed unanimously March 20, the day after the fatal fraternity house fire
in Bloomsburg. The study was due November 30. The Institute
will attend the LBFC meeting announcing the release of the report January
24, 2001. The New Jersey State Legislature also appropriated $50 million
for sprinkler protection.
So what's a fire department
to do? While the frequency of fire in a dormitory is small in comparison
to the number of false or nuisance alarms, every alarm has to be treated
like a response to the "Towering Inferno."
Pre fire planning will allow
the fire department to determine whether the building will be a friend
or foe in a fire. Special hazards can be identified far in advance of an
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||If and when an
incident happens, the chance of loss of life is always high based on the
mere number of occupants. The incident commander must be ready to
established a strong command presence and make quick strategic decisions
to attain the most desirable outcome.
Training, planning, communications
and knowing your resource's abilities and limitations are all ingredients
that are vital in this equation.
The following individuals
contributed to this article: Chief Charles Story, PIO Cecil Cornish, Lt.
David Schrieber, and Lee Powell, Jr.