Recently, researchers from the National Standards and Technology have been testing fire safety in college dormitories. Their research indicates that the correct combination of automatic fire sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and closed doors provide enough time and conditions that are safe enough for firefighters to perform their job effectively without undue hazard.
The experiments were conducted in a university dormitory scheduled to be demolished at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. The building will be replaced with a high-rise building on the campus.
Fires create many potentially fatal hazards, including high heat, lack of visibility and the accumulation of toxic gases. Those gases may be visible or invisible, and are hard to detect when the students might be asleep. In addition to monitoring thermal conditions and visibility, the researchers also measured the oxygen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels to determine the chances of survival on the fire floor.
The rooms used in the experiment were furnished as typical dorm rooms are, including clothing, books and furniture. Smoke alarms were installed in the rooms and the hallways. The smoke alarms activated within 30 seconds of ignition of a trash container in a dorm room, which was the cause of the test fires.
The first two experiments were conducted with the dorm room door and windows closed. In both test fires, the hallway remained tenable, which would allow other students to exit safely past the room of origin. Other fire experiment rooms had automatic fire sprinklers installed. The automatic fire sprinklers activated within two minutes after ignition. In these experiments, tenability was maintained in the dorm room and in the hallway.
Other experiments were conducted with the door of the dorm room left open and no fire sprinkler suppression system. In these fires, the tenability limits were exceeded in the dorm room and the hallway quickly.
These experiments show the value of having numerous fire protection features in a building working together. While I know that not all college dormitories are sprinkler-protected, I am hopeful that the colleges of today are certainly making efforts to get there.
One piece of the puzzle that all college dorm rooms do have is the ability to compartment the fire. This includes sleeping with bedroom doors closed, and keeping doors to the hallway closed at all times. This helps to block the spread of fire into the hallway, making it untenable early on in the fire.
Your children have a lot on their minds when they go away to college. Their life experiences may not have included surviving a fire situation. They may still feel the invincibility that many teenagers feel. Make sure you are there to help give your children the best chances of success and survival in their futures.
Tom Kiurski is training coordinator for the Livonia Fire Department.