Campus dorms high and dry without fire sprinklers

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November 11, 2011

12:11 AM

For a college whose iconic building has burned to the ground three times, prioritizing fire prevention at the school seems practical.

Yet according to the College of William and Mary’s 2011 fire safety report, the majority of campus residence halls lack flame-quenching sprinkler systems. A congressional bill to provide funding for sprinkler system installation at universities could improve the safety of students at the College — and prevent dorms from suffering the fate of the often-scorched Sir Christopher Wren Building.

The Stephanie Tubbs Jones College Fire Prevention Act, introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives Oct. 24 and the U.S. Senate Oct. 31, seeks to address inadequate campus fire safety by providing matching grants to fund up to half of the installation costs for sprinklers and other fire prevention measures in university dormitories.

“The effectiveness of sprinklers, if it’s been properly maintained and installed correctly, they have about a 99 percent effective rate at saving lives,” Edwin Caldas, board member of the American Fire Sprinkler Association Virginia Chapter, said.

Residence hall fires have not been a common problem at the College recently. No incidents were recorded last year, one took place in a Ludwell apartment in 2009, and two kitchen fires occurred in 2008.

But college dormitory blazes are on the rise nationwide. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 1,800 residence hall fires were recorded in 1998, and 3,300 in 2005. Between 2005 and 2009, there was an annual average of 3,840 dorm fires, which caused an average of 3 deaths and 38 injuries each year.

The NFPA maintains that sprinkler systems are highly effective in preventing residence fire fatalities; according to its statistics, the death-per-fire rate is 83 percent lower in residences with sprinklers than in residences without them.

At the College, only the graduate student housing complexes and Hunt, Jamestown North, Jamestown South and Reves halls have full sprinkler systems. Cabell, Harrison and Monroe halls possess partial systems. That leaves more than 60 campus residence halls, including the sorority houses and lodges, without sprinklers.

School officials note that most of the College’s dorms were constructed well before sprinklers were required by building codes, and that current building code does not mandate installing them in old residence halls.

“There’s no requirement to go back and put them in existing buildings, that would be a really big expense for people, and people would object to that a lot,” College Building Official for Facilities Management Bob Dillman said.

Expense is not the only factor prohibiting sprinkler installation at the College. According to Dillman, retrofitting a residence hall with sprinklers poses numerous challenges.

“It is difficult to go back into an old building and do something like that, and often it isn’t done unless it’s during a total renovation,” he said. “The only time we can do something like that is when you guys aren’t in the dorms.”

Dillman, who is responsible for ensuring campus buildings meet safety codes, confirmed that each dorm is in compliance with current fire prevention requirements called for by the international building code, which the College adopted in 2000.

“The fact that they meet code normally defines them as safe,” Dillman said.

Associate Vice President of Facilities Management Dave Shepard said that the College has recently been focusing its attention on upgrading its fire alarms systems, and will look into sprinkler installation in the future. The renovation scheduled for Yates Hall next summer will include sprinkler installation.

“It’s not something we’re ignoring — it’s a matter of rethinking and moving ahead,” Shepard said.

Sprinklers do not guarantee safety, though. One of the biggest blazes in the College’s recent history took place May 3, 2005, when a faulty exhaust fan malfunctioned in Preston Hall. There were no injuries, but there was such great fire damage to the third floor and smoke and water damage to the first and second floors that students assigned to live in the dorm in fall 2006 had to be housed in the Governor’s Inn hotel.
Preston Hall, Dillman pointed out, had sprinklers at the time of the fire.

“One of the interesting things is that Preston was sprinklered, under a code that required the occupied floors to be sprinklered, but not the attic, and the fire started in the attic,” Dillman said. “When we rebuilt Preston, we put sprinklers in the attic. The code changes because people learn from things like that.”

Dillman was skeptical of the Fire Prevention Act.

“Somebody thinks it’s a really good idea and they put a bill together but they don’t go very far,” he said. “I’ve seen this before. It’s a good idea, but it takes a lot of money.”

The College is in the process of hiring a new fire safety official, and the blueprints for the new fraternity housing complex include sprinkler systems.

“As it can afford it, I expect someday all of our dorms will have sprinklers in them,” Dillman said. “I’m hopeful that it will happen. That’s one of the things I’d like to see, because it does improve things. It would be a definite improvement.”

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