Mandating Dorm Sprinkler Protection

In response to a number of tragic campus fires that occurred this past year, the state of New Jersey has become the latest to adopt legislation mandating and supporting the installation of sprinkler systems in college housing facilities.Similar to recent initiatives in Chapel Hill, N.C., Durham, N.C., Boulder, Colo. and Lawrence, Kan.

10/01/2000


In response to a number of tragic campus fires that occurred this past year, the state of New Jersey has become the latest to adopt legislation mandating and supporting the installation of sprinkler systems in college housing facilities.

Similar to recent initiatives in Chapel Hill, N.C., Durham, N.C., Boulder, Colo. and Lawrence, Kan., New Jersey's law requires that college and university dormitories be protected with sprinkler systems. The legislation also provides $90 million in low-interest loans, and the state's budget proposal includes $1 million to support the installation of sprinkler systems in fraternity and sorority houses.

"If you're a fire-protection engineer in New Jersey, you're certainly going to be very busy," claims Ed Comeau, who publishes a monthly Campus Firewatch newsletter.

Beyond the legislation, Comeau points out that these sprinkler retrofits are driven by the market because fire protection is starting to be a variable that parents and students consider when choosing a college. This is especially true in the aftermath of fatal fires that occurred this year at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J., Bloomsburg (Penn.) University, Millikin University, Decatur, Ill. and the University of California at Berkeley.

"I think it's unfortunate that whenever we've had serious fires, after the fact, people start saying we should have sprinklers in these buildings," explains John A. Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, Patterson, N.Y. "We need proactive, not reactive laws."

As to why such legislation has been slow in coming, Comeau suggests that municipalities hesitate due to the cost and disruption caused by installation.

But the former chief fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Quincy, Mass., also points out the flaw in the second excuse, in that hospitals and hotels manage to perform sprinkler retrofits while keeping operations up and running. Jim Lake, a senior fire-protection specialist with NFPA, also expresses frustration with the way fire codes are manipulated by different jurisdictions.

"NFPA has written a code that specifically requires automatic sprinklers in buildings. Often, lobbyists extract significant material out of these codes, and where they come up with these provisions is anybody's guess," says Lake.

For ways that engineers can improve life safety in college dorms, Viniello suggests, "When fire-protection engineers are writing specs, they really should be thinking in terms of fire sprinklers, even if the code doesn't call for them."





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