Making Fire Safety Technologies Safer on Campus

Every year, fire kills at least one student in a campus residence hall, and about 70 students suffer mild-to-severe injuries. The toll could be higher, but for fire sensing and suppression technologies that have become more and more common in college residences. According to research conducted by Carter & Burgess, Inc., a Fort Worth, Texas, architectural firm with a large fire engineering practice, a building with the required number of smoke alarms increases the chances of surviving a fire by 47 percent. More impressive, a properly specified and installed sprinkler system boosts the likelihood of survival to 97 percent.

How Fires Start in Campus Residences

Fire safety experts note that an environment that provides fuel, air and an ignition source can cause fire. College residences provide an abundance of each. Air, of course, is present everywhere. Residences also supply a host of fuels, from polyurethane mattresses and furniture padding, clothing and draperies through books and papers, to wooden bookcases, desks and other furnish- ings. Ignition sources frequently found in residence halls include smoking materials - matches, lighters, cigarettes and cigars - as well as candles, halogen lamps, hot plates, coffee makers and overloaded electrical outlets.

A more sinister ignition source also exists in residence halls: arsonists. Carter & Burgess research says that arson causes up to one-third of all college residence fires.

Add to all this the fact that fire can kill in a matter of minutes. According to a 1999 report by Frederick W. Mowrer, Ph.D., P.E., Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland, "accidental fires in residential facilities can reach deadly proportions in less than three minutes - incendiary fires even faster!"

Students Remain Their Own Worst Enemies

Despite the growing use of fire safety technology in campus residence halls, danger persists, given the unwillingness of students to take the threat of fire seriously. Campus facility managers struggle to keep pace with the maintenance of fire safety technologies regularly disabled by students trying to avoid setting off alarms or sprinklers while cooking or smoking.

In response, advanced technology designs are making fire safety technologies more tamper resistant. One example is Northeastern University's three-year-old New West campus residence hall (see accompanying story, next page). At New West, the smoke detector system, supplied by Honeywell's Notifier division, sends an alarm to the campus police when someone tampers with a smoke detector - or when smoke sets it off, for that matter. The alarm not only announces a problem in the building, it specifies the floor and room. University police immediately converge on the room identified by the system. If there is a fire, they call the fire department. If someone is tampering with a smoke detector, they put a stop to it and make immediate repairs. "The system has helped stop fires early," says James Yantosca, Sr., president of Northeast Integrated Systems, the Malden, Mass.-based distributor that supplied the Notifier equipment for New West. "University police have also arrived at rooms where a surprised student is still holding a disabled smoke detector in his hands."

The system costs more than conventional smoke detection, but Yantosca says that it has helped to reduce the numbers of disabled smoke detectors substantially. "Over the course of a year, inspectors used to find as many as 30 percent of the residence hall smoke detectors disabled," he says. The Notifier system has solved that problem and slashed the cost of replacing broken equipment.

Technological Additions Made to the Original System

Since the original system was installed during the construction of New West, a backup network device has been added to the system. The basic network system, called Noti • Fire • Net, connects all of the fire safety devices in the building into a network. These include smoke, duct and heat detectors, water flow and tamper switches and manual pull stations. The backup network, called UniNet 2000, works with security devices including access control systems, guard tour systems, closed circuit television systems and some heating ventilating and air-conditioning applications. In addition, UniNet 2000 will accept inputs from fire detection technologies. "If one network goes down, the other can handle reporting," Yantosca says.

The latest Notifier innovation is called the Noti • Fire • Net Web Server, a diagnostic device that allows maintenance technicians to identify fire safety problems over the Internet. "If you have a problem in one of your buildings with a system connected to this server, you can diagnose the problem from the campus, from the road or from home," Yantosca says. "Our technicians can also log in on the system and give someone at the school a hand in diagnosing what has gone wrong."

Step by step, fire safety technology is making college life safer.