The Fire.... 

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 system. 

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 fighting equipment." 

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. 

Common problems  

Delayed alarms  
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 wasted. 

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  
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. 

Common exits  
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. 

Multiple connections  
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. 

Cover ups  
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. 
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. 
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. 

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. 
"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 noted. 
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. 

The Reaction  

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. 

Command presence  
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 incident. 
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. 

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