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Preventing Dorm Fires

Parents have a lot to think about when they send their kids off to college: a good education, campus crime, binge drinking.

But what about fires on campus?

The Early Show consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen offers an eye opener for parents and students.

Right now, there is no federal law requiring colleges and universities to have sprinklers systems or even smoke detectors in their residence halls.

And only a handful of states and towns have passed laws regarding sprinklers on campus.

Experts say if your child is going to college, fire safety needs to be a top priority.

When fire broke out in a dorm at Seton Hall University, resident assistant Dana Christmas tried desperately to get her students to safety, at risk to herself.

Christmas says, "I'm knocking and I'm yelling and I'm screaming, 'It's a fire! Fire! Guys, get up! It's a fire. It's a real fire.' My scalp was on fire. My hair is burning. And my fingertips, they are on fire. They're burning."

It was Jan. 19, 2000, shortly after 4 a.m., when hundreds of students were forced to flee their residence hall. The fire started in a third floor lounge, on the floor where Christmas was in charge.

"And no matter where you go, there's smoke," she recalls. "It's like you're living a nightmare. And you want to escape."

And at that point, she still didn't run to try to save herself. She stayed behind to try to get other students out.

She says, "And my last attempt to alert the residents of the fire, I collapsed on the floor."

Burned over 60 percent of her body, Christmas was one of 58 students injured in the blaze. Three students died.

She says, "Just to know that they suffered like that with the immense smoke and the fire and being engulfed in all the flames is just why, I would like to see sprinklers installed throughout the entire nation."

Since that fire, Seton Hall has installed sprinklers, but many colleges still don't have them in their residence halls.

With the help of FM Global, a large insurance company, CBS News witnessed firsthand just how important a sprinkler system can be in a dorm setting.

Also invited to the demonstration were representatives from more than 50 colleges and universities.

In FM Global's massive burn lab, engineers constructed two typical dorm rooms. Both were set on fire; one room had a sprinkler, one did not.

In the first test, the fire was started in a trash can filled with paper. One minute and 22 seconds later, the smoke alarm went off. At three minutes, a real fire was blazing. Four minutes into the blaze, the temperature approached 1000 degrees. At four minutes and 41 seconds, flashover, and shortly after that, the windows blew out.

At this point, technicians step in to put out the blaze.

Dorm room No.1 was destroyed.

"We saw flames shoot out this door," Dennis Waters says. He works for FM Global. "They went out that window. This was intense. This was very intense. We had temperatures of about 1850 degrees on the ceiling during this fire test.

Anyone living in this dorm room would have had only minutes to escape. And the fire easily could have spread to other rooms.

Now, in the second test, a fire was started in a trash can in the dorm room with the sprinkler.

This time, the smoke alarm sounded at 51 seconds.

At one minute and 34 seconds, the sprinkler activated. Almost immediately, the room cleared of smoke and most of the flames were extinguished.

A fire continued in the corner, but the flames were contained by the sprinkler. The maximum temperature reached in this room was 305 degrees.

Waters says, "The difference, of course, is this room was sprinklered."

And because of that, he says the fire was contained.

He says, "I think this fire was confined to this space and would not have gone anywhere but this space."

And the fire department would have gotten there in time, he says. So there is no question for parents nthat a room with a sprinkler is the one they would want for their kids.

"To me it was amazing to see the difference," Marje Lemmon from Yale University says, "What a big huge difference."

Paul Moggach from the University of Michigan adds, "The visual impact is just overwhelming when you see what a fire can do, and how it can overcome the room."

Both say their schools are spending millions installing sprinklers.

Christmas says parents, students and lawmakers need to take fire safety on campus seriously.

"No one else deserves to be put in the situation that I have been in," she says. "Parents get active. Students get active. Don't put your life in the hands of someone else. If you can do something about it, take action now."

On the national level, the College Fire Prevention Act has been introduced. It would help schools across the country pay for the installation of sprinklers in residence halls.

Here are a few questions Koppen says parents need to ask:

  • Are the residence halls equipped with sprinklers?
  • Does every dorm have a smoke alarm?
  • Are there fire drills?
She suggests telling kids to take every alarm seriously.
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