U.S. Congress Passes College Residence Hall Fire Safety Laws

This story was written by Alyssa Montalbano, Massachusetts Daily Collegian
Most college students primarily remember three words pertaining to fire safety: Stop, Drop and Roll. But how much more down they know about fire safety?

In 2000, three freshmen were killed in a residence hall arson fire at Seton Hall University. Shortly following the tragedy, The College Opportunity and Affordability Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and earlier this month on Feb. 7.

The legislation contains two major elements regarding fire safety on campuses nationwide. The first requires colleges and universities to report fire safety information, including fire frequency, fire-related deaths and injuries, percentage of residence halls protected by sprinklers and alarms and fire safety policies.

The second element involves providing schools with the ability to apply for grants to fund automatic fire sprinklers and fire alarms, as well as other systems.

The legislation mandates that the statistics be reported to the Secretary of Education and will become a public record.

In 2007, the University of Massachusetts, along with Boston University, Butler University, Gordon College and Wesleyan College participated in focus groups for a study commissioned by the People's Burn Foundation of Indiana and Campus Firewatch, a monthly electronic newsletter focusing on campus fire safety, located in Belchertown, Mass. The study found that the 2006-2007 academic year was one of the most fatal. There were 20 campus-related fire deaths identified by Campus Firewatch.

The study asked 402 students, "What steps are you supposed to do if you have a fire in your room?" Ninety-eight of the students responded with the answer "Don't Know".

UMass alumnus Ed Comeau, Publisher of Campus Firewatch and previously the chief fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association, was closely involved with the legislation's creation. Comeau began his fire safety career as a member of the Amherst Fire Department Student Force.

Informing parents and students about the levels of fire safety on campus is one of the legislation's main components. It will provide information about which schools are excelling in the involvement of students in fire safety programs, along with those which are not.

"It will serve as an incentive for other schools to upgrade their protection on campus and to implement fire safety education programs," Comeau said.

Campus Safety and Fire Prevention Services Supervisor Mike Swain, also the volunteer director for the Center for Campus Fire Safety explains the preparation that UMass takes pertaining to fire safety.At the beginning of each semester, the University conducts fire drills in every residence hall, giving students a chance to hear the alarms and learn the correct way to exit the buildings quickly and safely. The drills are observed to see if any improvements can be made.

Resident Advisors are trained on general fire safety, prevention, and extinguisher use. During winter break, room inspections are conducted.

"We try and give the students fire safety knowledge that they can take with them when they leave the University," said Swain.

"As part of stressing education in fire safety, we conduct training programs for students caught violating University Fire Safety Regulations."

The Amherst Fire Department responds to situations on campus that deal with fires, explosions and fire alarms. According to Fire Chief Keith Hoyle, most of the fires that the department responds to are small trash can fires, notices burned off of a students' doors or car fires. The last major fire on campus occurred in 2003, which caused the loss of the Conservation building.

"The new legislation that eventually may require upgraded fire protection in college buildings will defnitely suppress fires in their incipient stages and give advanced warning to occupants and the Fire Department. Certainly it will save lives."
© 2008 Massachusetts Daily Collegian via U-WIRE