A recent editorial in USA Today “Purchase College’s close call: Editorial” shows just how close a call students had at Purchase College when a fire ripped through several buildings. Fire sprinkler systems in college dorms help prevent the loss of life and property. It’s time for New York State to revise its’ campus housing fire sprinkler requirements.
First of all, we are all grateful that everyone is safe and sound. While some Purchase College students lost all their belongings in a fire that ripped through apartment-style dorms at the school, there were no injuries. But some students lost all of their belongings.
But many questions remain, including: What steps can Purchase and other campuses in the state take to prevent future fire losses?
Classes started Aug. 29 at Purchase College, a SUNY school that’s known for its suburban Westchester campus and arts flair. On Sunday night, a kitchen fire erupted, quickly spread and destroyed two units in The Commons, a residential building also called “The New.”
The apartments on the campus’ K Street don’t have fire sprinklers. According to New York law, the building doesn’t have to. New York began mandating fire suppression sprinklers in 1984, and then only in newly constructed college dormitories; older residential facilities have to add fire sprinklers only if they undergo major renovations approved by the state’s Dormitory Authority.
More than 100 students were evacuated and won’t be able to return to their dorms for at least a week as power is restored. Displaced students are staying with friends on or off campus, or are being put up in nearby hotels, school officials say. But about 20 students lost everything they had brought with them as they settled back into college life; they will have to stay at a nearby hotel for the rest of the year.
New York weighed mandating a sprinkler retrofit following the 2000 fatal fire at a Seton Hall University residence hall in New Jersey. But the state ultimately decided that it would focus on stronger campus fire inspections and education programs. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a statement just two weeks before the Purchase fire, said: “New York passed legislation that instituted the most vigorous fire inspection program in the country.”
The state added another layer after a 2012 fire at Marist College in Poughkeepsie killed three students — the 2013 Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act requires public and private colleges to at least inform students and their families whether college-owned and operated housing is protected with sprinklers.
Information may be power, but sprinklers are a powerful deterrent to spreading fire.
Retrofitting sprinklers into dorms is costly. Groups like the National Fire Sprinkler Association still encourage it, and have suggested added fees to cover the cost; but many colleges, already under the gun for rising tuition and steep housing costs, have balked. According to 2011 figures from the National Fire Protection Association, 3,780 fires were ignited in dormitories, Greek housing and student barracks. Campus-related fires have led to 170 deaths since 2000.
On Aug. 26, Cuomo’s office announced a series of impending safety visits to public and private universities, led by the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and Office of Fire Prevention and Control. During the visits, officials would conduct inspections, education programs and training. Purchase, with dorms that earned a D+ on the popular college-rating website Niche, was not on the initial list.
The Purchase community has shown great support for the displaced students, launching a drive to collect sundry needs, from clothing to store gift cards to school supplies. By Sunday afternoon, the Red Room of the school’s Student Services Building was overtaken by piles of clothing and other items. Snack items sat on a table — some even nut-free and gluten-free — as fellow students rushed around, sorting the dropped-off bags and bins. Much more will be needed. Go to purchase.thankyou4caring.org to find out more.
Although Sunday’s fire was no doubt traumatic for many, and could serve as a serious setback for some, the Purchase College community was ultimately lucky. It may be time to revisit ways to get fire suppression sprinklers in New York colleges’ old dorms, too, to ensure future happy endings.