The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Fire sprinklers save lives!"... ...Dan Jones (Fire Chief, Chapel Hill, NC Fire Department) National Fire & Rescue Magazine

Commentary of the Day - August 2, 2001: Campus Fire Safety:

According to reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register an explosion and fire in a chemistry lab at the University of California campus in Irvine, CA on Monday, July 23, 2001 caused injury to a graduate student and two firefighters.  Fire, smoke and water damage from the firefighting efforts caused several million dollars in damage to the east wing of Reines Hall.  This incident brings into sharp focus the issue of fire safety on the nation's college and university campuses.

The fact of the matter is that fires occur on college campuses more frequently than one might imagine; and, the level of fire protection on the nation's college campuses is much weaker than might be imagined.  Only one-third of the buildings on the U.C., Irvine campus are fully equipped with fire sprinklers.  Although it was built little more than a decade ago, only the basement of the six-story Reines Hall was equipped with sprinklers.

A report that was issued jointly by the United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association in 1999 noted that about 1,700 fires are reported on college campuses each year.  Fires in dormitories, fraternity houses, and sorority houses account for the majority of incidents; but, a fair number of fires also occur in classroom, laboratory, and administration buildings on campuses.  About one-sixth of the dormitory fires are deliberately set.  Carelessness in cooking, smoking, and the use of candles account for many of the fires in student residences.  Alcohol use also contributes to the relatively large number of fires in residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses.

The level of fire protection in the campus buildings at U.C., Irvine is typical for public university campuses in the state of California.  Because they are located on state property, both University of California and California State University campus buildings are not required to conform to local building, fire, and safety codes.  Instead, they are constructed under much weaker state codes.  In almost all urban areas of the state, city and county governments have adopted much stronger building, fire, and safety codes.  For example, if the city fire codes had applied nearly all the buildings located on the U.C., Irvine and Cal State Fullerton campuses would have been fully sprinklered.

Instead, campus officials have taken advantage of the weaker state code to reduce the cost of construction for major classroom and laboratory buildings by limiting the use of fire sprinklers in most cases to the hazard areas called out in the state code.  Here at Cal State Fullerton only four of 19 major campus buildings are fully sprinklered (Library North, the Science Laboratory Center, and the two residence halls).  In addition, most areas of Library South are protected by sprinklers.  However, several major multi-story buildings on the campus either have no sprinklers or sprinklers in very limited areas such as basements.  These include the engineering and computer science buildings, the performing and visual arts buildings, the education classroom building, McCarthy Hall (the largest building on campus), the humanities building, Langsdorf Hall (which houses a number of administrative offices and the College of Business Administration), University Hall (another large classroom and office building), and the Titan Student Union (which includes many large assembly rooms).

It is often argued by college and university officials that smoke detectors and alarm systems function to protect lives, while fire sprinklers are intended to protect property and thus are less important.  This is a wholly specious argument.  A recent report to the Pennsylvania State Legislature on the feasibility of retrofitting college dormitories with fire sprinklers includes telling data on the effectiveness of sprinklers in reducing loss of life from fires.  The data show that there are 8.7 deaths per 1,000 fires in apartment buildings without sprinklers, compared to 1.6 deaths per 1,000 fires in apartment buildings with sprinklers -- an 81% reduction.  Similarly, for nursing homes and other care facilities for the aged not equipped with sprinklers the death rate per 1,000 fires is 10.8; while, in similar institutions with sprinklers the death rate 1.9 per 1,000 fires -- an 82% reduction.  The statistics for hotel, motel, dormitory, and barracks facilities are even more dramatic.  There is a nearly 100% reduction in the rate of fire-related deaths when these facilities are equipped with sprinklers.  In short, sprinklers don't just protect property, they save lives!

There are important reasons why smoke detection and alarm system alone are not as effective as the combination of sprinklers, smoke detectors, and alarms.  While smoke detectors and alarm systems can warn the occupants of a building that a danger exists, the occupants must take clear-headed actions in response to the alarm to reach safety.  If the occupants are unfamiliar with emergency stairwells and exits, or if their thought processes are impaired by sleep, alcohol, or panic, they may not take the actions needed to escape the danger.  Worse, in the case of dormitories and campus buildings that have frequent false alarms, the alarms may be ignored altogether.

In contrast, the operation of properly installed fire sprinklers is automatic.  If the temperature in the protected space rises high enough a link or plug melts and the sprinkler head delivers water until it is shut off by fire department personnel.  While the sprinklers may not deliver enough water to fully extinguish the fire, they help to contain the spread of the fire and they reduce the likelihood that the fire will flash over before the fire department arrives.

In the view of the Irascible Professor, sprinklers should be mandatory for all college dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses; and, should be mandatory for all college classroom and laboratory buildings.  It is now possible to retrofit existing buildings at reasonable cost.  For example, Pennsylvania recently decided to retrofit all public college and university dormitory buildings in the state with sprinklers.  The cost will be about $50 million.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.