Think Beyond Sprinklers To Keep Students Safe

by admin on January 25, 2011

It is true that sprinkler systems may save buildings and may save lives; however, are they the best option for protecting college students who live in our Greek houses? When you step back and consider the results for both people and property, a better option is to work to prevent the fires in the first place. There is a perception that if a building is protected with fire sprinklers it is automatically a much safer environment.

While we would never debate that fire sprinklers do help save lives, it is important to remember that sprinkler systems only activate once enough heat is generated at the ceiling level to melt the glass on the sprinkler head causing water to release. Long before a sprinkler head releases water, smoke can build in the environment to life threatening levels. A complete fire protection plan to protect our student residents is a combination of the following three key components:

  1. Education to understand safe practices to prevent a fire.
  2. A good detection system to alert you in the event a fire does occur.
  3. A sprinkler system to aid in extinguishing or reducing the spread of the fire.

Todd VanGorder, Project Manager at Meridian Integrations ( states “like other fire safety systems a sprinkler system reacts to fire.  A sprinkler may reduce the chances of death or injury and possibly property damage; however, it does not eliminate any of them. An excellent fire safety education course teaches people to be proactive by educating them on how to prevent a fire from occurring in the first place, which is the only sure way to prevent loss of life and/or property.  Once spark has occurred in an environment it can take up to 10 minutes before sprinkler systems are activated and nearly 17 minutes before a fire is extinguished. A lot of damage to health and property can occur in these 17 minutes if it extinguishes the fire!”

Here is a quick look at what happens after a sprinkler system deploys. A fire has occurred causing enough heat to break the glass on the sprinkler head.   If a fire was large enough to activate the sprinkler in that location (only sprinkler heads in areas of high heat will release) then you can be certain that property damage will occur.  Property damage in the Greek housing environment is the least of our worries. With fires and sprinkler deployment comes possible injuries, liability and displacement of the residents.  After the fire a whole set of questions begin to be asked:   What was the cause of the fire, was is human error? Was it mechanical? Was it preventable?

Again, was it preventable?  The latter question is one that is open ended in College Residential Housing arena today and brings on another question; what did you do to educate your residents on fire safety to help them prevent and survive a fire if one should occur? A recent document released August 2010 by the Live-Safe Foundation ( Titled “College and University Risk of Legal Liability Associated with Student Housing Fires” which includes “Specific Actions to Reduce Fire Risk and Liability” may resonate for students living in Greek housing.  One of the first specific actions for fraternity/sorority houses is to never allow students to occupy these homes without documented fire safety training.  All organizations allowing students to live in or participate at events at fraternal housing needs to ask the question, do the students occupying our house have documented fire safety training and proof that they completed a program and have an understanding of fire safety?

An effective fire safety training program will need to include educational material in fire safety, testing of the information provided and documented results for the organization giving the test. These documented results become very important in the event a fire would occur from human error; it gives you proof that you did everything possible to educate that occupant in fire safety.  Another effective element of fire safety training is to have all tests select random test questions so no two are the same, provide targeted remediation to educate the student in the event questions are not correct and have a certain amount of indicator categories in the testing process so all students have equal questions on the same subject matter.

A very effective fire safety program being used at numerous colleges across the country today is the FLASHPOINT program from NIFAST (The National Institute of Fire and Safety Training,  The FLASHPOINT program provides all of the elements of educating, testing, providing documented measurable results for the organization implementing the test and it is all done completely on-line.  FLASHPOINT also allows the organization to customize the program to include specific information on each chapter house or residence a specific test taker is associated with.  Mike Halligan, The Associate Director of EHS at the University of Utah, States: “Teaching students about fire safety is only half the task. The other half is measuring what they have learned; FLASHPOINT is the easiest and best way to measure all components of your fire safety education program.  The best way I can endorse this product is by telling people I am using it again this year at the University of Utah!”

Whether you use a program like FLASHPOINT, another product in the market place or develop your own, it is essential to have a documented fire safety program in place for your organization both for chapter members safety and for liability protection of your organization.  Do not get a false sense of security that your members are protected just because you have a sprinkler system in place!  It is time to put all aspects of a complete fire safety environment in place.

Please contact me at your earliest convenience to schedule a conference call so I can show you the Flashpoint program. Here is more information:

Steve Smith


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