January is a time when high school seniors begin to apply for college. As parents consider their options, their children’s safety is of the highest priority. Regional colleges and universities prioritizing the fire safety of New York’s 1.2 million college students and faculty should be commended.
Fordham, New York University, Columbia, Cornell and St. John’s are among the higher education institutions that have taken proactive steps to protect student-residents by installing fire sprinkler systems in new and existing dormitories. This is so important because, according to Campus Firewatch, there are approximately 3,810 campus housing fires across the U.S. each year.
Perhaps the most significant effort increasing fire safety awareness in the Empire State is the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act. The 2013 law, enacted after a fatal 2012 Marist College fire where three students died, requires New York public and private colleges to at least inform students and their families whether college-owned and operated housing is protected with sprinklers.
Likewise in 2000, a Seton Hall University dormitory fire in South Orange, N.J., killed three and injured 58 more students. That year New Jersey became the first state to pass legislation requiring both on- and off-campus school residence halls to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. The state has not recorded any campus fire fatalities since.
Wyoming, Delaware, Illinois and Wisconsin have all joined New Jersey in requiring sprinklers in all new and existing college dormitories.
The majority of campus housing fires in the U.S. (88 percent) begin in the kitchen as young adults experiment with cooking, often for the first time. Statistics also show that U.S. college students are more prone to overload electrical sockets, burn candles and experiment with smoking. These are among the reasons why over 3,780 fires were ignited in dormitories, Greek housing and student barracks in 2011, up from 2,490 in 1983, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Although increased college attendance may contribute to those figures, a 52 percent jump in fires is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.
What’s more, it’s simply inexcusable that campus-related fires have taken 170 innocent young lives since 2000.
According to the NFPA, the risk of dying in a fire is cut by about one-third when working smoke alarms are present. When a water-based fire sprinkler system is installed in an apartment building or dorm, the rate of death is 83 percent lower and average property loss is reduced by 70 percent.
As the number of college fires rise, the installation of sprinkler systems is more important than ever. Due to increased use of petroleum-based compounds and synthetics in modern furnishings, today’s fires are more toxic, burn hotter and 800 percent faster than even those 30 years ago.
Fire suppression technology can now react within just seconds of recognizing changes in atmosphere and temperature. Without sprinkler protection, trapped victims may have as little as three minutes to escape before the fire accelerates to a flashover state, reaching and exceeding temperatures of 2,000°F in mere minutes. A well designed, installed, tested, inspected and maintained sprinkler system will last for many decades, so it’s a long term investment in protecting both lives and property.
It’s time that fire sprinklers are required in each and every one of New York’s 248 higher education institutions. Protecting the lives and property of our student population should be a first priority. If your child is a college student living without sprinklers, urge his or her institution to consider fire sprinkler protection. Let us also call on our legislators to take the lead in requiring fire sprinkler protection in all student population housing. Waiting to take action only guarantees another tragedy.
Tony Saporito is the Executive Vice President of the Mechanical Contractors Association of New York.