Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Mommy's On Fire! Call 911!"

Ah, Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to the summer season is now upon us.  County fairs, music festivals, vacations, and of course outdoor barbeques for the next few months will fill our weekends as we enjoy the long warm days of the summer solstice.

Sadly, it also means the beginning of the busiest time of the year for emergency rooms and burn units.  According to the U.S. Fire Administration, during the five-year period between 2006-2010, fire departments in the United States responded to an estimated average of 157,300 home structure fires in which cooking equipment was identified as the source of  ignition.  Death, injuries, and property losses are staggering to say the least and the numbers tell the story quite convincingly, 380 civilian deaths, 4, 920 civilian injuries, and $794 million in property damage year-after-year.  While other types of fires have decreased significantly over the years, the number of reported homes fires involving cooking equipment has actually increased since 2002.

Hannah Storm, ESPN SportsCenter anchor found out first-hand the dangers of outdoor grilling.  On a windy and chilly December night, Hannah was seriously burned after attempting to re-light her barbeque, an event that could have ended her life.  Hannah was kind enough to tell her story with a public safety message presented by ESPN and the NFPA:

Follow a few simple safety tips to keep you and your family safe this summer:

  • Propane and charcoal BBQ grills should only be used outdoors.
  • The grill should be placed well away from the home, deck railings and out from under eaves and overhanging branches.
  • Keep children and pets at least three feet away from the grill area.
  • Keep your grill clean by removing grease or fat buildup from the grills and in trays below the grill.
  • Never leave your grill unattended.
  • Always make sure your gas grill lid is open before lighting it.
For charcoal grills:
  • There are several ways to get the charcoal ready to use.  Charcoal chimney starters allow you to start the coal using newspaper as a fuel. Use caution on windy days so as to not spread embers to other combustible materials.
  • If you use a starter fluid, use only charcoal starter fluid.  Never add charcoal fluid or any other flammable liquids to the fire.
  • Keep charcoal fluid out of the reach of children and away from heat sources.
  • There are also electric charcoal starters, which do not use fire.  Be sure to use an extension cord for outdoor use.
  • When you are finished grilling, let the coals completely cool before disposing in a metal container. Never place coals in a paper bag.
For propane grills:
  • Check the gas tank fittings and all hoses for leaks before using the grill for the first time each year by using a soapy bubble test.  Place a small amount of dishwashing detergent in a spray bottle and spray the solution around all gas components, looking for air bubbles.  If there is a leak, immediately turn off the gas grill and tank.  Inspect and tighten all components or get the grill serviced by a professional before using it again.
  • If you smell gas while cooking, immediately get away from the grill and call the fire department.  Do not move the grill.
  • If the flame goes out, turn the grill and gas tank off and wait at least 15 minutes before re-lighting it.

Monday, May 13, 2013


Add One to the List-College Campus Fire Safety

For you parents out there with soon to be college freshman living amongst your midst, this is a very exciting time of year for both you and your undergraduate.  However, it can also be a very stressful and sad affair because for many, their babies will be leaving home for the first time, in some cases living thousands of miles away, in others, just the next town over.

In either case, the decisions and things to do and think about can be overwhelming to even the most organized of families.  Something can get easily overlooked among all the issues to deal with such as: summer orientation, transcripts, housing, meal plans, financial aid, class schedules, and textbooks just to name a few.  There are two items however that must absolutely be on the top of your to-do-list: discussing fire safety with your college bound loved one and investigating the living conditions of your child’s new living arrangements.     

In this article, I will be reflecting back on the deadliest college dorm fire to date in the United States, the Providence College fire in Providence, Rhode Island on December 13, 1977, the site where 10 female students lost their lives in a fast moving fire.  And after I have convinced you to put fire safety on the top of you to-do-list for the upcoming school year, I will also be discussing what to consider in regards to fire safety when deciding on either a campus dorm or off-campus living arrangement.  

Before proceeding however, I would like you to take a look at some facts about campus fires and then a short video to drive home the point.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), between the years 2005 and 2009, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 3,840 structure fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and barracks that resulted in 3 civilian deaths, 38 civilian fire injuries, and $20.9 million in direct property damage.  The reported leading cause of fires was cooking, followed by arson, smoking materials, heating equipment, negligence with heat sources, candles, and electrical.  Statistics also show that fires in these occupancies occur mostly between the hours of 5 p.m. through 11 p.m. and on weekends.

Campus Firewatch, a website dedicated to campus fire safety, did a study on fire deaths on our campuses from January 2000 to April 2007 and found that 109 people died in student housing fires.  The Study also revealed that in excess of 80% of the fire deaths occurred in off-campus houses and apartments, with the remainder occurring in residence halls or fraternity houses.

Providence College
Founded in 1917, Providence College sits on 105 acres of prime real estate in the city’s Elmhurst neighborhood.  The campus is completely gated and sits atop Smith Hill, the highest point in Providence.
The Campus consists of three main gates, nineteen academic and administrative buildings, nine dorms, five apartment complexes, three residential homes, four athletic buildings, and a host of other support structures.
The student population of Providence College is approximately 4,600, drawing most from the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.  Since the college is known as a private, coeducational, Roman Catholic university, approximately one-third of incoming students attended Catholic high schools.
The Fire
Dispatchers at the Providence Communications Center received a pull station alarm from the fourth floor at Aquinas Hall at approximately 2:57 in the morning.  Immediately, three engines, 2 ladder trucks and a battalion chief were dispatched to investigate the pull station alarm, something they had done hundreds of times at the college over the years. 
Engine Company 12 and Ladder Company 3 were first to arrive on scene and immediately struck a 2nd alarm due to the numerous students awaiting rescue at the windows of the building.  In fact, rescue operations at the windows were made more difficult because of how vehicles were parked around the building.  One student, identified only as Matt, painted a clear picture as to the initial chaos: “They couldn’t get the trucks close enough because of the cars in the parking lot, so dozens of students pushed the cars out of the way on the snow slicked lot.”
In fact, many students and all the fire fighters on the scene that night were to be commended for their heroic actions.  According to the report, “Fire fighters were assisted by Providence College students who helped to raise ladders and drag hose lines.”  Eventually fire fighters were able to advance 1 ½” hose lines up the center stairwell and down the corridor to the room of origin, #406, and extinguish the fire.
The Investigation
David P. Demers, a member of the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Investigations Department, wrote an abstract of the subsequent investigation into the fire titled “Ten Students Die in Providence College Dormitory Fire”. 
In the article, Mr. Demers summarizes the incident as follows: “In the early-morning hours of December 13, 1977, a fire occurred at Aquinas Hall, a dormitory at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.  This fire resulted in the deaths of ten female students who were residents of the fourth floor.  The primary fuel for the fire was highly combustible Christmas decorations that had been put up in the corridors.  The extremely rapid fire development and a dead-end hallway were the most significant factors that contributed to the multiple loss of life.”
The Building
Aquinas Hall at the time was a four-story U-shaped building constructed in the late 1930’s.  The structure contained classrooms and a chapel on the first floor and a girl’s dormitory on the remaining upper three floors.  The dormitory did have a fire alarm system consisting of pull stations, fixed-temperature heat detectors, and interior alarm horns.  The alarm system was connected to the Providence Fire Alarm and Communications Center through a master fire alarm box.  There were no smoke detectors or automatic sprinklers in the building. Portable fire extinguishers stored in break-in glass cabinets were available in the hallways of each floor.
Three enclosed stairways serviced Aquinas Hall, one in the center stair tower which also contained an elevator, and the other two on each end of the building.  One of the structural components of this building that was determined to have contributed to the deaths of four of the ten women was dead-end corridors.  Dead-end corridors are basically a hallway which does not have an alternate means of egress besides the one you originally entered through. Take a wrong turn from your dormitory room and you will end up at a dead-end, and if you happen to be between the fire and the exit, chances are you will not survive.  Many citizens including firefighters have died in dead-end corridors over the years. 
Another structural feature that contributed to the spread of this deadly fire had to do with the room doors leading out into the corridors.  The doors were made of a wood composite with air transfer grills located approximately five feet up from the bottom of the door.  The doors were not of the self-closing type you see today and the grills were made of cheap pressed board with holes in it, very similar to “pegboard”. 
One last important building feature that played a significant role in how the products of combustion spread through this building was the way heat was supplied to the rooms.  Each room was supplied with heat by hot-air supply ducts and air registers located in the exterior walls with return-air grills located in the corridors.  This configuration created an air flow from the rooms into the corridors. Therefore, on a cold night as it was on this night, one can assume that the heating system was in full operation and air is circulating the way it was designed to.  This of course is not a problem until there is a fire.  A fire in any of the rooms, particularly if the door was left open, would force heat, smoke, and flames into the corridors at an alarming rate; Combine this with flammable Christmas decorations on the walls in the corridors and you have a recipe for disaster.  
Fire Development and Spread
As the fire progressed from the incipient stage to the growth stage, three women in Room 406 awoke from the smell of smoke and went to the window and opened it.  As soon as they did this, additional oxygen was added to the fire causing it to grow in intensity.  As the heat and smoke intensified, two of the women moved out onto the window ledge, the other female waited in the window.  Meanwhile, because of the air movement caused by the building’s heating system as described earlier, heat, smoke and flame began moving towards the front door leading out into the corridor.
Even though the girl’s dormitory room door leading to the corridor was closed, fire was able to penetrate the “pegboard” air transfer grill and out into the corridor igniting Christmas decorations that lined the hallway in both directions.
Back at Room 406, the three women who are trapped are now beginning to realize that time is running out.  Sadly, before ladders could be raised, two of the women jumped to their deaths.  The third woman who remained in the window fortunately remained long enough for firefighters to get a ladder to her and bring her down, uninjured.    
The Origin and Cause of the Fire
According to the report, the physical evidence shows that the fire began in Room 406, somewhere in the vicinity of the bedroom closet.  Unfortunately, investigators were never able to determine the initial ignition source of this fire, although there was much speculation from non-fire personnel.  Some who lived in Aquinas Hall believe that a hair dryer used to dry wet mittens from a snowball fight earlier was the cause, while others heard it was a gooseneck lamp illuminating a nativity scene in the corridor next to Room 406.  Whatever the cause, the sad fact is that ten women lost their lives that night and many others were injured both physically and mentally for the rest of their lives.
As mention above, two of the ten women who died in this fire died from injuries after jumping from the 4th floor.  Four students died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation, and four died as a direct result of burns.  Twelve students and one firefighter suffered minor to moderate injuries.
The Final Analysis
According to investigators, there were three major factors that caused the deaths of ten Providence College students. One, the highly combustible decorations added to the corridor walls, two, the long dead-end corridors, and three, the heating system. 
To celebrate the holidays, a decoration competition among the individual dorms had taken place with students vying for cash prizes for both best individual room and best decorated corridor. Decorations were made from various materials including: natural evergreen Christmas trees, wreaths, both brown and crepe paper, straw and cotton.  All the items applied to the walls were secured by masking tape.  These decorations provided a continuous chain of combustible material down the corridor allowing for rapid fire spread on the fourth floor.
Again, listing dead-end corridors as a contributing factor to four of the ten deaths, the report reiterates what I mentioned earlier regarding dead-end hallways; residents leaving their rooms in the dead-end corridor were prevented from reaching the exit because the fire was between them and the stairwell, blocking off their only safe egress from the building. 
Third, was the failure of the room of origin being able to contain the fire only to that room.  Once again, investigators believe the design of the heating system allowed returned air to move through the room and out into the corridor through the transfer grill located in each of the individual doors, thus contributing the spread of the fire.  

College Campus Fire Safety Tips
The National Fire Protection Association's Public Education Division recommends the following safety tips:
  • Look for fully sprinklered housing when choosing a dorm or off-campus housing.
  • Make sure you can hear the building alarm system when you are in your dorm room.
  • If you live in a dormitory, make sure your sleeping room has a smoke alarm, or your dormitory suite has a smoke alarm in each living area as well as the sleeping room.  For the best protection, all smoke alarms in the apartment unit or house should be interconnected so that when one sounds, they all sound.
  • Test all smoke alarms at least monthly.
  • Never remove batteries or disable the alarm.
  • Learn your building's evacuation plan and practice all drills as if they were the real thing.
  • If you live off campus, have a fire escape plan with two ways out of every room.
  • When the smoke alarm or fire alarm sounds, get out of the building quickly and stay out.
  • Stay in the kitchen when cooking.
  • Cook only when you are alert, not sleepy or drowsy from medicine or alcohol.
  • Check with you local fire department for any restrictions before using a barbeque grill, fire pit, or chimenea.
  • Check your school's rules before using electrical appliances in your room.
In addition to the recommendations from the NFPA, I would also like all of you to consider the following as well:
  • Stop by the nearest fire station that serves the college and the surrounding area and speak with the firefighters on duty about fire safety at the college.  Ask them about response times, particularly if they are out on another emergency call and another station has to fill-in.  Find out about any fire protection systems that might be in place and how often they are tested and maintained.  Ask if there is a annual or semi-annual inspection program for both on and off campus housing and if available, ask to see the last five years of inspection forms.
  • If your child is living in a residence hall, inquire about regulations concerning the combustibility of contents such as furniture, wall and floor finishes.  Regulations should include the use of appliances such as microwaves, refrigerators, and hot plates.  In addition, rules should already be in place regarding the use of open flames, including candles, incense, and smoking.  Many residence halls have senior student classmen, often referred to as resident assistants or RA's, that are tasked with helping the students in the building.  Often times they are also responsible for fire safety in the dorm and should have received training in identifying potential fire hazards and fire safety education.  Find out if such a program is in place and ascertain if the RA's live in the dorm as well.   
  • Regardless of where you child is going to be living, check out the housekeeping yourself.  Look for rubbish or weeds around the exterior of the building, how garbage is stowed away, etc.  Pay particular attention to stairwells looking for propped open fire doors, proper emergency lighting, fire sprinklers and above all, check for combustible storage under stairways.  Make sure hallways are free of items such as shopping carts, bicycles, etc.
  • When looking at the room, check to see that enough electrical outlets are in place and that they are not overloaded. 
Organizations involved in campus fire safety can be a great source of information.  I recommend you check out the following websites:

Campus Firewatch
P.O. Box 1046
Belchertown, MA. 01007
Center for Campus Fire Safety
P.O. Box 2358
Amherst, MA. 01004
National Fire Protection Association
One Battery Park
Quincy, MA. 02269
United States Fire Administration
16825 S. Seton Avenue
Emmitsburg, MD 21727

I hope this information has helped you in deciding the safest possible living arrangements for your soon to be college grad.  Fire safety must be a priority for you and your child.  Young adults typically have a sense of invulnerability, you know, the old "this is never going to happen to me" attitude.  But the fact of the matter is, campus environments can be dangerous places with close living quarters and risky behavior.