The second part of "To Hell and Back" is a powerful series of photographs documenting the recovery of two students injured in the Seton Hall dormitory fire in 2000. The series was shot by Newark Star-Ledger photographer Matt Rainey, and won a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 2001.
Stop, Drop, and Log On
An innovative new online program arms college students with up-to-date information on campus fire safety.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
By Ed Comeau
One of the challenges for campus and community fire safety officials is providing educational materials that appeal to today’s Internet generation. In 2007, the People’s Burn Foundation, a burn survivors’ support organization based in Indianapolis, was awarded a $500,000 Fire Prevention and Safety Grant through the Department of Homeland Security to develop a campus fire safety education resource. The result was a DVD called “To Hell and Back: College Fire Survival,” and its companion website, www.igot2kno.org. Copies of the DVD were distributed free to every fire department, college, and university in the United States last year and were first used for the 2008–2009 school year. The Foundation just received a $497,000 Fire Prevention and Safety Grant to continue the project.
“To Hell and Back: College Fire Survival” and www.igot2kno.org represent two of the newest tools available to fire safety educators. Developed specifically for college students, they are already having an impact on the campuses that have used them, and more schools plan to begin using the program this fall.
The video is in two parts. The first part depicts a hypothetical fire that occurs in an off-campus house and claims the lives of two young women. Included in this section is a review of what went wrong and how the viewer can avoid making the same mistakes. The second part is an account of the aftermath of an actual fire, the 2000 Seton Hall University dormitory fire in South Orange, New Jersey, that killed three students and injured nearly 60. The Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark followed the treatment of two burn survivors from that fire, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, and produced a powerful video montage of black-and-white photographs documenting their recovery.
“The reaction to the video is incredible,” says Justin Phillips, director of education and family services for the People’s Burn Foundation. “Everyone is so glad they have something to show that is up-to-date and speaks to the student population.” Phillips says more than 50,000 copies of “To Hell and Back” have been distributed.
The www.igot2kno.org website includes the video, as well as FAQ sections and “Fast Fact” sheets on a variety of campus fire safety topics, including burns, candles, cooking, electrical, smoke alarms, smoking, and sprinklers. The website also includes several shorter videos that help reinforce the importance of fire safety, as well as the consequences of fire. A key feature allows institutions to track their students’ performance on tests, located on the website, that evaluate their knowledge of fire safety. More than 150 schools are using the www.igot2kno.orgwebsite, Phillips says.
Among the communities using the program is Corvallis, Oregon, home to Oregon State University. The fire department in Corvallis uses the program as a way to present fire safety to 38 fraternities and sororities in the city. “It’s new, fresh, timely, and relevant to this group,” says Jim Patton, fire prevention officer for the Corvallis Fire Department. “It has a significant impact on the students.”
Understanding the audience
I had the opportunity to work on this project as the leader of the subject matter team. By having people on the team who represented a variety of interests and backgrounds—fire service, campus fire safety, the insurance industry, and more—we were able to take a multi-faceted look at the issues, and devise an assortment of possible solutions.
The 10-person team was brought together for a multi-day meeting in Indianapolis in 2007. There was a lot of discussion about how to overcome the reluctance of students to be involved in fire safety education. Given the focus of today’s Millennial Generation on Internet-based applications such as YouTube, Facebook, and other social media tools, everyone agreed that whatever we developed had to be closely related to how this generation of students processes information. Whatever the team decided upon as an end product, we recognized that it had to be visual, such as a video, as opposed to text-driven, such as a brochure. We were able to turn to MediaSauce, an Indianapolis-based video and Internet production company that had worked with the People’s Burn Foundation on other projects, for expertise and resources.
We held a series of focus groups at schools in Indiana and Massachusetts to learn from students what would appeal to them. The results of these focus groups were invaluable in reinforcing what many campus fire officials know from their regular interaction with students, and helped us develop content to support the project.
We learned that students lack basic knowledge about fire safety and prevention. Much of this can be traced back to the fact that, for many of them, the last fire-safety training they had was in elementary school. A common response to the query “What should you do if your room is on fire?” was “Stop, drop, and roll”—a great example of a message that stuck, but one that has little to do with a burning room (though it’s still the proper response if your clothes are on fire). Students needed new fire-safety messages, and they needed new messengers to deliver that information.
We decided that a video produced from the student’s perspective would be one of the most effective methods of getting our fire-safety message across. The scenario for the video was one that is seen far too often in fatal campus-related fires: a fire in an off-campus house during a party. A script was written, a production schedule was created, casting calls were sent out, and locations were scouted. We found an ideal set— the home of a MediaSauce employee—and a cast and crew of more than 60 people were assembled for five nights of shooting.
A key component of the project was pilot testing, and an early version of the video was sent out to about 60 schools and communities, along with evaluation forms to get their feedback. In putting together the script, we tried to develop a scenario that would resonate with today’s college-age student. Several of the people on the production team had just graduated from college, which led us to believe we could develop something that was relevant and engaging for our audience. When we went over the evaluation forms, however, the reaction was, to put it mildly, less than stellar. A common criticism from the students who previewed it was that the original scenario, which involved a relationship among several of the actors, was “cheesy” and not really believable. Based on this feedback, we went back and reworked the story to eliminate the relationship angle, and used footage we’d already shot to focus more closely on the fire and the significant contributing factors that led to the deaths. We did not have time to send this version out for as complete a review as before, but the reaction from the small group of students that did view it was very positive.
The original plan was to develop a DVD-based tool and distribute it to every fire department and school in the country. However, as the project evolved, we recognized that making the same content available over the Internet would help tremendously in leveraging the information.
But what to name this yet-to-be-developed site? The answer came during a meeting where the development team was throwing around different names, and the best suggestion came in the form of “text-speak” from the 14-year-old daughter of one of the women present: igot2kno.
The website, which is now the main project resource, includes a wealth of information, particularly the “To Hell and Back” video. To make it more of an educational tool, the site is designed so that students must register and take a brief pre-test before they can view the video. After watching the video, they take a post-test that evaluates what they learned. While the site is open to anyone to use, schools that register with the People’s Burn Foundation to use the site can get reports on how their students are doing on the test—information that’s invaluable if a school is using igot2kno as a mandatory teaching tool.
Purdue University was one of the first schools to use the site on a widespread basis. Purdue University Fire Chief Kevin Ply, who was on the original subject matter expert team that developed “To Hell and Back,” says he incorporates the site into the university’s fire safety education programs in several different ways. “Our fire prevention officer is using it as the foundation for his programs with the Greek housing system,” says Ply. “Another way, with the approval of the People’s Burn Foundation, is by broadcasting it over our internal television network, which runs throughout all of the residence halls, anywhere there is cable television.”
Student reaction to the program is “very positive,” says Ply. “Most of them say that they have not had any fire safety training since they were kids, and they like that it is targeted to their age group. We get nothing but positive feedback from the Greek system.”
According to Robert Ferrara, director of fire safety for Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, “To Hell and Back” has had a particularly strong impact at the university, since the Seton Hall University fire also happened in New Jersey. “I use it in various pieces with different audiences,” says Ferrara, including during first-year-student orientation where parents also see the presentation. “It’s pretty powerful, especially the portion about the road to recovery, especially with the parents.” It is also a key part of the training for resident assistants.
Ferrara is already looking forward to the next phase of how the program is used. “We’re going to pilot the online version this year with the resident assistants and see how it goes,” he says.
Ed Comeau is the publisher of Campus Firewatch, an online newsletter about campus fire safety issues.
National Campus Fire Safety Month
The fifth annual National Campus Fire Safety Month will be launched on September 17 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Every September, campuses and communities across the nation reach out to students to provide them with invaluable fire-safety information. The theme for this year’s campaign is “Fire Safety—It’s Part of Living.”
As with last year’s launch, a contingent of students from the University of North Carolina, along with parents, advocates, and fire officials, will gather on Capitol Hill. A press conference with members of Congress will be held to discuss campus fire-safety measures moving through Congress. Afterwards, participants will meet with Congressional staffers. On the same day, a similar launch will be held in Cheshire, England, to help raise awareness of campus fire safety in that country.
For more information, visit www.CampusFireSafetyMonth.org or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/campusfirewatch.
— Ed Comeau
Remembering Seton Hall
How tragedy fueled an unprecedented legislative push for campus fire safety
Campuses in New Jersey have a good reason to embrace the message of “To Hell and Back” and www.igot2kno.org. On January 19, 2000, a fire in Boland Hall, a dormitory at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, claimed the lives of three freshmen and injured nearly 60 other students. The fire was deliberately set, but it wasn’t until 2003 that two students were arrested and charged. They pled guilty to arson, describing the incident as “a prank that got out of hand,” and were sentenced to five years in prison in 2007.
The Seton Hall tragedy was a significant turning point for campus fire safety across the nation, with New Jersey taking a leading role. Shortly after the Seton Hall fire, a coalition of fire safety advocates in the state, including parents and fire officials, came together and began looking at solutions designed to eliminate such disasters. Working closely with the state legislature and the Governor’s office, advocates were able to get legislation signed into law on July 5, 2000 that required the installation of automatic fire sprinklers in every room in every college dormitory and Greek house in the state. The speed with which this legislation passed was unprecedented, and would have happened sooner except for one sticking point: the original legislation called for a five-year window for the installation of sprinklers, but the governor successfully fought to shorten it to four years.
What’s more, the legislation provided $90 million in state funds for institutions and organizations to help pay for these sprinkler systems; three years later, only $78 million had been required to meet the mandate of the law. These funds were in the form of zero-percent loans to the schools and two percent loans to Greek organizations with a 15-year window for them to pay back the funds. The legislation also requires automatic fire sprinklers in all newly constructed residence halls, fraternities, or sororities.
— Ed Comeau