Across the nation, campus-related fires happen every day in residence halls, off-campus houses, fraternities or sororities. Students lose their homes, clothes, schoolwork, computers-and, sometimes their lives. Since January 2000, 155 people have died in campus-related fires and countless others have been injured. The fatal fires often dominate the headlines for a period of time and then are replaced by other breaking news, while the fires that don’t involve fatalities are even more quickly pushed aside. Fires that are controlled by fire sprinklers are even reported less, if at all, because they are essentially a “non-event.”
All of these fires, whether they involve fatalities, injuries or are sprinkler saves, have an impact that is so often not told in the news stories that can last weeks, months or years after the headlines fade.
In a three-week period in January and February 2012, nine significant fires happened on campuses across the nation. These ranged from the tragic fire in Poughkeepsie, New York, that claimed three lives to a sprinkler save in a high-rise residence hall at Portland State University in Oregon and each of these fires had a story to tell that is often not captured in the news reporting. Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch, who compiles information on campus-related fires, had noticed this trend and thought that, collectively, they would make for a very compelling story.
The Minger Foundation, in association with Campus Firewatch, embarked on a project to capture the impact of these fires and to use them as examples of what can go right and what can go wrong. We set out to interview parents, students, fire officials and school administrators to learn what happened in the days and weeks after these fires, we wanted to learn “the rest of the story.”
The goal of this project was to produce a video that told the stories of each of these fires and make it available online for anyone to use. The Foundation was fortunate enough to have a number of people step forward and provide funding, in very short notice, to help make it a reality. We quickly assembled a team that included Matthew Hashiguchi, a recent graduate of Emerson College, who had served as the videographer for the series of videos we produced on fire safety for students with disabilities.
Time was against us because we knew it would be important to capture these interviews before the end of the semester when all of the students would be leaving their campuses. It was also geographically challenging since the schools were located in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Oregon, Arizona and Wisconsin. The team members were in Florida, Ohio and Massachusetts so we had to make extensive use of a lot of online tools to collaborate, such as DropBox, Vimeo, Google Docs, Facetime and teleconferencing.
These are the fires that we profiled in 9 Fires.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse An early-morning fire in a four-story residence hall broke out in the basement of the building. Smoke spread throughout the building, primarily through unsealed pipe chases and floor penetrations. Fortunately, all of the students got out of the building safely, but the damage was so extensive that the building had to be shut down for the entire semester for repairs. This is certainly not the type of situation that many schools plan for and it required a lot of hard work and ingenuity on the part of the administration to accommodate all 271 students that were displaced.
Telling the story about this effort would be a great lesson-learned for other administrators and Chancellor Joe Gow immediately gave his support to our request to interview himself, his staff and students that were involved. The University even went further and provided video support in the form of videographers and access to a studio to do the taping. La Crosse Fire Chief Gregg Cleveland was also very supportive and arranged for his staff to take part and also provided us with access to the fire station for the video shoot.
There was a lot that we learned out of this incident (we actually wound up with much more footage than we could possibly use, which resulted in some hard decisions on what to cut and what to keep!). The primary lessons are that fire drills are important and were instrumental in the incredibly quick evacuation of the building. What was unfortunate about this incident was, despite the fact that the building was shut down for six months while they cleaned it, repaired it and used the opportunity to upgrade the telecommunications infrastructure and made ADA compliance changes, the university chose to not install an automatic fire sprinkler system.
Arizona State University (Tempe, Arizona) A fire broke out in an upper-floor residence hall room. As fire fighters were approaching the room, they could smell smoke and as they opened the door to the room, the sprinkler head activated, extinguishing the fire which had consumed a small plastic wastebasket. While it was extremely fortunate that fire fighters were on the scene and could have also put out the fire, if they had not been there, and if there had not been a fire sprinkler system, the outcome to the fire would have been dramatically different.
Portland State University (Portland, Oregon) A trash chute ran the height of this ten-story residence hall. Unfortunately, the trash had backed up from the basement to the second floor and when someone threw a cigarette into the chute, it ignited this pile of trash. Fortunately, there was an automatic fire sprinkler system in the chute which activated and extinguished the fire. Certainly, the trash should not have been allowed to build up like it had, but this fire demonstrated the importance of having systems in place in the event that such a situation does occur.
Both the ASU and PSU fires are dramatic counterpoints to what happened at UWLAX and show how the investment of a sprinkler system can pay off in terms of lives saved, damage minimized and how mission continuity can continue. Within hours, the students were back in their residence halls at ASU and PSU while at UWLAX, the university had to find alternative housing for 271 students for an entire semester.
Hampden-Sydney College (Hampden-Sydney, Virginia) HSC has a series of what they call Theme Houses which are similar to fraternities and sororities. They are college owned buildings and, in this case, a fire broke out in the Tiger Athletic Club house which was a two-story, wood-framed, unsprinklered building located on the HSC campus. There was an open porch on the first floor, and a carelessly discarded cigarette had started a fire in a couch. The occupants thought they had put out the fire using cups of water and then they went to bed. However, during the night the couch was ignited by the smoldering cigarette and the fire then spread into the building. The occupants woke up and everyone was able to make it out of the building safely. However, since they did not have an assembly point identified, one of the occupants thought his friend had not made it out and crawled back into the building on his hands and knees looking for him and was burned by the fire. He survived his ordeal, spent time in a burn center, and was able to return to school and graduate with his class.
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland) A high-tech laboratory had a fire break out on a holiday (Martin Luther King Day) when there were few people in the building, but there were two people in this particular lab at the time. The fire happened in the ceiling and is believed to have been caused by an exhaust fan which ignited ceiling filters. The lab had a number of dangerous gases in it which, if released, would have had significant environmental consequences. Fortunately, the building was equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system and two sprinkler heads opened, controlling the fire and protecting the equipment in the lab. While the equipment, which had been built by graduate students over the years, was damaged, some was recovered and served as a model for rebuilding, which would not have been the case if the sprinkler system had not been present. In addition, all of the adjacent labs were able to stay up and running. So, the sprinkler system stopped a serious environmental incident from occurring and also allowed operations in the building to continue and helped the lab where the fire occurred get on more quickly with its recovery operations than would have happened without a sprinkler system.
SUNY Canton (Canton, New York) A fire in an unsprinklered chemistry lab caused extensive damage to the lab and the building. But even more than this, because of the environmental impact of the event, the entire campus had to be shut down and students were sent home for a week while clean up operations went on and while the environmental impact could be assessed on other buildings. In addition, the fire fighting apparatus, equipment and turnout gear all had to be quarantined and decontaminated, which was a major disruption to operations and equipment had to be loaned to Canton from other fire departments in the area so it could continue functioning during this time. Personnel from the fire department had to stay on campus monitoring conditions during the week as well, which is a significant burden on a volunteer department.
Just like the residence hall fires, these two fires dramatically demonstrate the difference that a sprinkler system can have in the outcome of a fire.
The most significant, and tragic, fires happened in off-campus housing. According to Campus Firewatch, over 85% of the fatal campus-related fires happen off-campus, where about two-thirds of the students live. Clearly, the greatest danger when it comes to fires is off-campus housing. The buildings that students live in tend to be older and not as well maintained. They are often single family homes that now have a number of students living in them, often in improvised bedrooms, in a way that the building was never designed for. Common factors in a number of these fires include lack of automatic fire sprinklers, missing or disabled smoke alarms, careless disposal of smoking materials, impaired judgment from alcohol and fires in upholstered furniture on decks or porches.
Boston University (Boston, Massachusetts) In a three-story, wood frame house, a fire broke out early one morning. The house was shared by members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity from Boston University (but it was not a fraternity). When the seven students had rented the house originally in September, it did not have smoke alarms in it, but before the fire they had been installed which is fortunate, because that is what alerted them. One of the men thought it was his roommates alarm clock and tried to go back to sleep, but then saw smoke coming in under the door. He was able to get out, but Josh Goldenberg, who lived on the third floor, had to jump out of his window to escape the fire and was severely injured in the fall. He spent weeks in a medically-induced coma and was then transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. He is now at home, but has not been able to return to school yet because of his injuries. The cause of the fire was not determined, as far as we know.
Suffolk University (Brookline, Massachusetts) A fire that was caused by improper disposal of linseed oil rags in the basement of this apartment building spread to all four floors up a central stairway, causing significant damage and trapping Allie Wheeler, a Suffolk University student on the top floor. She was asleep at the time, and when she heard the smoke alarm going off she thought it was her roommates burning some food. However, when she heard the fire apparatus outside of the building, she got up and was now trapped by the fire coming up the main stairway, unable to escape. She called her roommate, who was outside the building, on her cell phone, asking her what to do. Her roommate told her to try going down the back stairway, which she did, but she was overcome by smoke and had to be rescued by a Brookline fire fighter.
Both of these fires demonstrated the importance of working smoke alarms and how vital it is to react immediately when the alarm sounds. Students, and the general public, often think that they have a lot of time to react and escape when, in reality, it is measured in seconds, not minutes.
Marist College (Poughkeepsie, New York) The most tragic fire of all happened in Poughkeepsie, New York, in an off-campus house rented by students from Marist College. A fire broke out at about 1:30 in the morning in the rear of the house. Two seniors, Kerry Rose Fitzsimons and Eva Block, and one former student, Kevin Johnson, were killed in this fire. The house was a two-story, wood-frame house and it was equipped with smoke alarms. Four other students were able to escape the fire, which took an hour to bring under control. They all said that when they opened their bedroom doors, the hallway was filled with smoke and they had to jump out of windows. Eva was found in her bedroom on the floor, Kevin was found at the base of the stairs and Kerry Rose was found in the bathroom with the door closed and towels on the floor that suggested she was trying to shelter herself from the fire. The cause of the fire could not be determined.
Kerry’s father, Bob Fitzsimons, shared his memories of Kerry and spoke of how this tragedy has impacted her two sisters, her mother and himself in such a significant way.
Throughout this project, everywhere we turned, people went out of their way by opening up their homes to us and telling us their stories. Putting together the 9 Fire documentary has reinforced how important it is to reach out and teach today’s young people about the importance of knowing what to do to prevent a fire and, maybe more importantly, what to do when one breaks out. Together, we can work to make our campuses safer and prevent tragedies like these from happening again.