Where's the Fire?

The question on campus is not “will we have a fire?” but “when will we have a fire?” The American Society of Safety Engineers cites that, “between 2002 and 2005, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 3,300 structure fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and barracks.” These events prove costly in many ways, with an annual average of “seven civilian deaths, 46 civilian fire injuries, and $25M in direct property damage.”

Spreading the Message

With the stakes so high, informing the college population how to respond to an event proves important. But don’t look for a one-size-fits-all solution. “Traditionally there are three separate audiences you have to reach with your fire and life-safety protocol,” said Mike Halligan, associate director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Utah. “The staff, the students, and the faculty all need to be hear the same message differently.”

Staff remains the easiest group to reach. Scheduling a training session during a departmental meeting gets you face time with this population. “A 20-minute presentation beats handouts every time,” continued Halligan. “A presentation should include what to do during a fire, weather event, or other life safety occurrence.” Information should be clear, concise, and presented in an appropriate manner.

Students prove the biggest group that needs to be addressed. Those that reside in a dorm or residence hall are members of a captive audience, at least in body. Making sure this population hears and understands life-safety protocol may take a bit of finesse. “If we are doing a face-to-face I will send out a firefighter in their early 20s,” said Halligan. “That turns a lecture into a peer-to-peer discussion that students may be more open to.” Messages should include items that are prohibited in the residence hall rooms and perhaps a contract that students can sign.

The school paper remains a valuable resource as well. The first weeks in September see loads of articles that deal with safety issues, from locking your dorm room to parking lot security to fire and emergency protocols. “Students read the paper every day,” continued Halligan. “Dropping in articles on fire safety is a smart way to reach more people.”

Other technology can prove useful as well. A television monitor that plays a fire safety tape on a continuous loop could be stationed in the student union. Some schools require students to fill out an online training form before they can register for class the next semester. And never underestimate the power of “swag.” Freebies like Frisbees, pencils, totes, and other fun stuff emblazoned with a fire safety message can reach students without even trying.

Specialized Groups

Some students require specialized training that even the most tempting freebie cannot communicate. “RAs and other student leaders should know how to work the fire extinguisher,” said Peter Babigian, principal, WB Engineers. “RAs may get more information when an alarm goes off than other students,” continued Halligan “Perhaps a text message with information about the nature and location of the emergency is appropriate.”

Chemistry majors bear a bigger safety burden than other students and need to be trained appropriately, preferably at the start of each semester. “Students need to know about the characteristics and the hazards of the materials they will be working with,” said Halligan. “They need to be clear about alarm protocol and meeting places.”

Surprisingly, one of the hardest groups to reach with safety messages is faculty and researchers. Difficult to pin down in a meeting, Halligan reports that it is best to reach these people in small groups or one-on-one. “Engage them with a conversation, acknowledge that they are experts in their field, and show them examples of past fires and other life-safety events from other colleges around the country,” he advised.

Next-Generation Response

The nature of fire and safety messages has changed, along with ways to disseminate them. Stop, Drop, and Roll no longer covers it. An alarm usually means “leave the building and gather in a safe place to be counted,” but tragedies like last year’s shootings at Virginia Tech and some weather events require that people stay in the building. Next-generation alarms that hook into a school’s IP network could alert appropriate people with phone or text messages. “Fire alarm and suppression systems can be integrated into a network,” said Babigian. “The sprinkler system can pinpoint the fire and begin to suppress it while students are made aware of the situation. If it’s a case where it’s safer to stay indoors, students can be told that as well.”

Next-generation technology could also help count students once they are finally evacuated, but Babigian doesn’t want anyone to give up the old-fashioned head count. “Card systems can read how many people are in a building at a given time but you could forget your card in the rush to get out,” he said. “Nothing beats counting people and cross checking names against a list.”