The Inspector

by Philip Chandler

Whether it be in my discussions with the recalcitrant professor who routinely chocks fire doors or in my haranguing of orientation attendees, my objective is the same: to provide a compelling vision of what their environment might be like with acrid smoke banked down to the floor and super-heated gases swirling overhead. Without a visceral feeling for what it’s really like to find one’s self in a building on fire, so many of our rules and regulations seem to many as just like all the rest etched in parchment by out-of-touch lawmakers. I would guess that half my day is spent in trying to encourage others to see the world through my eyes.

All of us charged with the life safety of those that toil in academia, however, know all too well that at any moment the universe can turn upside down. With this thought in mind, we do everything possible to prevent fires in the first place, and … should the worst case scenario occur, to make sure that our buildings, systems and evacuation plans all work to get folks out of harm’s way.

We urge occupants to leave buildings as soon as the fire alarm activates. We caution everyone to not play the role of hero; we repeatedly state: “Let those that are appropriately trained and equipped tend to the fire.” Many colleges, accordingly, discourage faculty, staff and students from attempting to extinguish fires, even those still in their incipient stage. For many, there is one simple rule: Get out, stay out, and let the fire department do its job.

Obtaining such an outcome is certainly no easy task. It is the level of response that we all aspire to. Many of us might conclude that as long as everybody gets out safely, we have done our part. I humbly suggest that our work is not done until we have done all that we can to make sure that when the fire department does arrive on our campus, they are in fact able to expeditiously do their job.

As of late, a good chunk of my efforts has been in encouraging my campus colleagues, the public safety officers, the trades people and the EH&S folks to see their campus not through their eyes and not through mine, but rather, through the eyes of the arriving fire incident commander. And, incidentally, not necessarily only as the campus appears during the workday, but rather also including as it appears in the wee hours of the morning with snow falling and visibility impaired.

Right off the bat, will your fire department be able to find the fire building? I know of one campus, and I’m sure it’s not unique, with a hundred buildings, all with the same street address! Of course the regular first-due companies are familiar enough with the campus, but what about those times when they are on another assignment and apparatus is responding from across town, or even the next town? Is it certain that during an incident, especially one at off-hours, that public safety will be able to meet arriving firefighters at the entrance to the campus and escort them to the scene? When they finally arrive, will they have access to the building? Yes, firefighters have the wherewithal to remove doors and breech walls, but honestly, is this what we want when every second counts? Yet, on almost every campus I visit, there are always serious key and access issues.

There are always newly changed locksets and super secure locations that baffle the key shop. By the way, do you know where your elevator keys are? It’s often been said that the fire department’s job is, simply stated: to put the wet stuff on the red stuff.

This is often easier said than done, especially when the fire department can’t find the wet stuff. Many colleges, I’m sure unintentionally, for instance, obscure their hydrants. They bury them in snow banks in the winter and behind hedges in the summer. They paint them every conceivable color except those offering consistent and quick recognition. More importantly, with all the construction going on college campuses, economic downturn notwithstanding, can fire departments be confident that hydrants will produce the flow of water needed for fire suppression?

And, for that matter, what about the most frequently ignored and obscured fire suppression component: standpipe connections? Tucked around the corner, hidden behind dumpsters stuffed with soda cans, fire department connections are right up there with hydrants as being absolutely indispensible to firefighting operations. No less important than all of the above mentioned hardware requirements, are the software requirements of effective fire control. Does your fire department know what it is exactly that they may encounter in your advanced materials laboratory? Can they expect that at an incident someone will be present at the command post with all the information needed on building layout and hazardous materials present?

Look, far be it from me to point fingers. But the simple truth is, I have not seen a college campus that would not benefit by a good tune-up of its interface with the local fire department. The summer is probably the best time to spend some time with the guys and gals on the red trucks. Invite them to tour the campus and do a little preplanning, or maybe even conduct an exercise or two. And most importantly, I suggest that this summer is an excellent opportunity to take a ride with them and see your campus through their eyes!

Get this article as a PDF HERE.

Philip Chandler is a long time firefighter and a fulltime government fire marshal working extensively in the college environment–from large public university centers to small private colleges. His primary responsibilities include code enforcement and education.

Phil welcomes your comments, thoughts and opinions (whether in agreement or opposition) to his viewpoints. He may be reached

The viewpoints expressed in The Inspector are those of the author alone. They are offered to initiate thought and debate, however, they do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, its officers, directors or its editorial staff.

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