Fired up about safety

Before Greek Village residences replaced outdated facilities of the now-gone Village, an unattended candle caused a fire that burned down one housing unit. No injuries or hospitalizations were reported, but the incident emphasized the concern over fire safety on campus.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is launching a fire prevention campaign the week of Oct. 9-15, with an emphasis on safe candle use.

The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), dedicated to protecting people, property and the environment, is also championing fire prevention on college campuses.

According to the latest statistics compiled by ASSE, most on-campus fires occur in student dormitories.

Fire-starting activities such as smoking, unattended candles and cooking were sighted as major concerns in the report.

“The kitchen is the biggest source of a fire hazard, and our biggest problem is leaving unattended cooking appliances on the stove,” said Stoney Burke, former USF deputy building code administrator for the Department of Environmental Health and Safety. “Students need to be very cautious using appliances in the kitchen.”

According to the NFPA, cooking equipment caused 41 percent of fires in college dormitories.

“We are getting more and more apartment buildings that have stoves with them,” Burke said. “If you’re cooking, the safest thing is to make sure you have a pot lid in case of a grease fire.”

Fire safety is a high priority for USF’s residence halls, according to Ric Baker, the residence education coordinator.

“The USF fire marshal comes through usually every semester, at least once a year if not twice a year, and inspects all of the machinery to make sure that the fire extinguishers are up to date, all the detectors are working, all the maintenance is done and all the systems are in place,” Baker said.

According to Fire Marshal Charles Russ, who works for the Bureau of Fire Prevention in Tampa, 60 to 70 percent of USF’s residence halls are equipped with automatic sprinkler systems.

According to Burke, all of the newer apartment-style halls have automatic sprinkler systems in place. Only a few halls – those under three stories – do not have automatic sprinkler systems, Burke said.

“We’re getting more and more sprinkler systems in our resident halls,” Burke said. “Our plans are that starting – soon, all of the non-sprinkler old buildings on the north side of Holly will start getting hooked up when all of those buildings are redone. That is supposed to start in the next couple of years. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it will be done building by building as they all get upgraded.”

Students who live in residence halls go through fire safety tutorials within the first few weeks of every semester, according to Baker. Subsequently, one unannounced fire drill is scheduled for every residence hall per semester.

Resident assistants orchestrate fire drills and design and discuss maps with students to insure the safest and quickest way out.

“Additionally, students in the beginning of the year, (with) all of our RA staff, complete the fire, health and safety inspection,” Baker said. “The RAs go through every single room and check what things (the students) have to look out for, like not having any extension cords, not having the windows blocked so people can get out if they need to.”

Material in violation of fire safety codes, such as alcohol and candles, are dealt with swiftly. When found, the students are given a week to get rid of it, Baker said.

Once they get out of the building they are instructed to make a 911 call as a back up to the fire alarm system.

They also are taught how to help evacuate students who have mobility problems.

“All they have to do is go into the stairs, and they have a fire protection rating of one to two hours, so they are safe there,” Burke said.

For resident halls that are less than three stories, the stairwell has a safety rating of one hour. For those more than three stories there is a two-hour safety environment. The hours refer to the amount of time someone can safely spend in a stairwell in the event of a fire-related emergency.

“All the fire alarms are connected straight to the University Police dispatch, but it’s just like anything else – there is a chance of failure – a fire may have started right where the phone wires are, so the police department might not have received (the call),” Burke said. “So if we’re out of the building, thank goodness for cell phones.”

He also said staff are required to alert the emergency crews of the location of students upon arrival.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about half of the adults who die in fires have high blood-alcohol counts. However, the alcoholic burn victims have a mortality rate three times that of nonalcoholic victims. Drinking alcohol impairs one’s ability to respond and safely escape a fire, according to the Department.

January, May, September and October are noted by ASSE as being the peak months for campus fires due to graduation parties and rush events sponsored by Greek houses.