NFPA Journal®, September/October 2003
In June, two former Seton Hall University freshmen were indicted on murder and arson charges stemming from a January 2000 fire that killed three students and injured more than 50 others.
For college administrators, many of whom manage campuses with unsprinklered dormitories, the headlines were a nagging reminder that more than three and a half years after the New Jersey blaze, fire safety in dorms remains a pressing and unresolved issue.
The numbers for 2000 alone speak for themselves. Two months after the fire in the unsprinklered Seton Hall dorm, three students were killed in a fire at the Tau Kappa Epsilon House at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. And in June of the same year, a student was killed in a fire at the Kappa-Sigma House near Millikin University in Illinois. Both fraternity houses were unsprinklered.
Fire isn't a rarity on college campuses, where students live in close proximity and often mix dangerous habits, such as smoking, with late-night studying and alcohol. Between 1994 and 1998, there were an average of 1,425 fires per year in college and university dorms, according to NFPA's Fire Analysis and Research Division. >>
These fires accounted for 58 civilian injuries and roughly $6.3 million in property damage. During the same period, another 141 fires in fraternity and sorority houses accounted for an additional 17 injuries and roughly $2.8 million in property damage each year.
According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, there are roughly 4,200 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Although comprehensive fire sprinkler data aren't available, anecdotal information indicates that only a handful have dorms that are completely sprinklered.
A 1998 report by NFPA's Fire Analysis and Research Division found that on average, property damage was 36 percent lower in 1989-1998 fires in dormitories and barracks when fire sprinklers were present. That low showing comes despite fire sprinklers' demonstrated value: On average, property damage in sprinklered dormitories that experience fires was 41 percent lower than damage in dorms that didn't have fire sprinklers.
"Very few states are taking action, so change isn't happening as a result of legislation," says Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Fire Watch, an online magazine that tracks the issue. "In the past three years, states have introduced more than two dozen pieces of legislation relating to the issue, and only about four of them have gone anywhere."
Since the Seton Hall fire, a handful of states have passed laws pertaining to fire sprinklers on campus, most notably New Jersey, which requires them in dorms. Wisconsin requires high-rises of more than 60 feet (18 meters) to be sprinklered, and Pennsylvania passed a law giving the body that oversees the state's higher-education the authority to subsidize fire sprinkler retrofits with bond issues. Kentucky has passed "right to know" legislation that requires schools to make their fire policies and fire experience public.
In some states, local jurisdictions, such as Lawrence, Kansas; Boulder, Colorado; Durham, New Hampshire; State College, Pennsylvania; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have taken the lead, passing fire sprinkler mandates for dorms and Greek housing.
On the federal level, legislation that would make $80 million per year in matching funds available to public and private universities that installed fire sprinklers for the next five years was reintroduced in March after failing to make headway in the previous Congress. Right-to-know legislation, also introduced in the last Congress, is expected to resurface this year, too.
For the most part, however, the decision to retrofit existing dorms with fire sprinklers has largely been left to the universities themselves. According to Comeau, this means that change may take place only when an informed public demands colleges and universities attend to the issue of fire safety.
"Colleges aren't putting Internet connections in dormitories because it's being legislated," Comeau says. "They're putting them in because that's what the public demands. It's a matter of market forces. Parents are going to have to understand the need for fire sprinklers and pressure the universities to provide them."
A logistical challenge for colleges
That higher-education facilities might be less than eager to undertake a major capital improvement is understandable. Thanks to rising operating costs and endowments trampled by Wall Street, money for such projects is scarce. What's more, finding a window of opportunity to perform the work can be difficult.
At the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, where seven of nine dorms are sprinklered, the fire sprinklers had to be installed over a number of summers.
"We couldn't retrofit the buildings while they were occupied, so we approached the problem one building at a time and, beginning in the mid-1990s, worked over a number of summers," says Campus Safety Supervisor Lewis Watkins.
The remaining two dorms will either be renovated and retrofitted with fire sprinklers during the next few years or razed.
"It would have taken several years to get Jester sprinklered if we only worked during the summers," explains Doug Garrard, associate director of the university's Housing and Food Services. "That timetable was too slow for the state fire marshal."
So UT, with the help of Schirmer Engineering in Dallas, came up with an elaborate plan for installing the system, which complies with NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, while Jester was occupied. So much coordination was required that the UT Housing Department hired a special liaison just to coordinate the project. A BlazeMaster Fire Sprinkler System comprised of non-metallic pipe was installed.
Resident advisors held information sessions for students about a week before contractors moved into their particular areas and again several days before students' rooms were affected. The university provided students with packaging materials for their belongings, as well as explicit instructions for moving furniture and equipment.
On the day fire sprinklers were installed, students were told to leave their rooms by 8 a.m. and not to return until 5 p.m. A Housing Department staff member stayed on the floor while work was underway to allay concerns about theft, and digital photos were taken of each room before work began to ensure any damage claims were legitimate.
By retrofitting six to seven rooms a day, UT was able to complete the $11 million project in less than a year. Since then, nine more of the campus' 13 residence halls have been retrofitted with fire sprinklers and about 84 percent of the rooms protected. By the time the six-year project is completed, UT will have spent $23 million on fire safety.
In Wisconsin, complying with 1999 legislation requiring high-rise residence halls on state campuses to be sprinklered by January 2006 has also been a challenge, according to Paul Evans, director of housing for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the urging of the local fire department and the university's Safety Department, UW Madison began making plans to fire sprinkler its four high-rise dorms before the law was passed, but timetables and finances have been no less an issue.
"You're really facing three big challenges," says Evans. "First, there's the issue of time. We were putting in new alarms as well as fire sprinklers, so the dorms needed to be unoccupied, and summer is a very tight time period for getting all that done. Second, you're talking about retrofitting buildings that weren't necessarily designed to have pipes. In some cases, the ceiling of one room is the floor deck for the room above it, so there isn't space in between for pipes. In other cases, there's no space between ceilings and door jams. Third, it's costly."
The Wisconsin Department of Administration estimated the cost of retrofitting the high-rise dorms on five Wisconsin campuses at about $3.75 per square foot, or $7.3 million.
Aesthetically, the result isn't very pleasing either.
"They're ugly," Evans says candidly. "The student rooms aren't so bad because pipes are generally built into soffits, but in the hallways and common rooms, you're looking at exposed pipes. We paint them, but they're still not very attractive."
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder
While fire sprinklers may not be the most physically attractive part of the dorms, the University of Cincinnati is quick to point them out to prospective students and their parents.
"It's definitely one of the things we want our campus guides to highlight," says Dawn Wilson, director of Resident Education and Development for UC. "I talk to a lot of parents, and each year about 20 or 30 will ask me if we have fire sprinklers in the dorms. Occasionally, someone will say to me, ‘I'm glad because most aren't,' or ‘I'm glad because it's a high-rise.' I think there's a growing awareness about fire safety on campuses, but it's still not an overwhelming force."
The sprinklered dorms comply with NFPA 13 and NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Systems. Both standards are referenced by the State of Ohio Fire Code. In addition, the university used NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code® for guidance.
Although guides don't highlight fire sprinklers during their campus tours, Wheaton College in Massachusetts has a similar regard for the fire sprinklers in its nine residential buildings.
"We made a $2 million investment in fire sprinklers and related work in 2001 and 2002," says Director of Communications Michael Graca. Because Wheaton doesn't have a summer term, the work was done during summer vacations. Additional water main service was added in the summer of 2001, and the dorms were sprinklered during the summer of 2002.
"It was a big investment, but we're talking about student safety, so I think it would be difficult to argue that it wasn't money well spent," he says. Still, the fire sprinklers aren't something Wheaton touts.
"We don't have any plans to make it a selling point, because we regard it as part of our school responsibility," Graca says.
In this Section:
|Get Online! Stay Online!
NFPA makes Fire Prevention Week information available at a click of a mouse.
|21st Century Dorm Room
Tragic fires on college campuses lead to an emphasis on dorm fire detection and sprinkler coverage.