College Campuses: Pre-incident Planning through Cooperation and Understanding

College Campuses: Pre-incident Planning through Cooperation and Understanding


The college campus is almost a city within itself. Complete with housing, food services, utilities, chemical and research facilities, office space, public assembly areas, etc., these complexes require extensive pre-incident planning.

In every fire prevention program, pre-planning is an important tool to insure that your fire company or department can effectively deal with emergencies. Pre-planning allows you an extensive look at the buildings and areas of responsibility, provides you with the opportunity to speak with appropriate authorities about special conditions (chemical facilities, penal institutions, etc.), and lets you consider your options.

If your response district includes a college, you face a combination of special problems. The typical college has dormitories that can house several hundred students in each structure; an infirmary that can house non-ambulatory patients at any given time; academic buildings that can house extensive data processing centers, research centers, and laboratories that are sure to contain materials to complicate your fire suppression efforts and pose life threatening hazards to both fire crews and bystanders. The college also may frequently host large sporting events, concerts or other social activities. It is not uncommon for even a small college to draw crowds of several thousand people for these events.

Because of the diversity and difficulty involved in fire control for the campus, pre-planning is especially important.

In order to make your planning efforts more productive and to avoid the frustration that can keep your project from being a success, it is important to have a basic understanding of how the college works.

An examination and a detailed listing of all hazardous and flammable storage should be Included.

There are two sides to managing any academic institution, the faculty and the staff. The faculty reports through a department head to the college dean. Faculty members may serve on a campus committee dealing with general safety issues, but for the most part they are not directly concerned with the overall physical operation of the institution.

The vice-president in charge of business and finance, or a business manager is responsible for the supervision and coordination of departments and staff that perform the day to day physical operations, which include security, safety, food service, and maintenance. Therefore, the business officer is the college official you should contact first in the event of an incident.

When you speak with the business officer about your pre-fire planning project, it is important to remember that you are speaking to a person with a business background, probably in accounting. You will need to explain the importance of pre-fire planning. By clearly defining the objectives of your project, he can understand your intent and not misunderstand what the planning will accomplish. In many cases, the business officer will readily agree with the fire department’s objectives and will refer you to a security or plant operations supervisor.

Know the location and operation of specialized building service equipment.Special storage and handling of materials and their location should be noted.

The college may have a full-time fire safety officer. If so, your work will be much easier because this employee may already have most of the information you need on file. He will be able to give you a more informative tour of the campus and the facilities, pointing out areas of special concern.

So you can make the most of your interaction with the fire safety officer, or in the event there is no such employee on the college staff, you should begin your project by obtaining the following information: A map of the campus should be drawn up to include all existing buildings and buildings under construction, roads, fire lanes, and names of the buildings and streets. After you become familiar with the campus, it is a good idea to color code the buildings for quick identification. The location of fire hydrants, major gas mains, and electrical transformers should also be on the map.

An interior schematic of each building on campus should be drawn on a floor by floor basis. This drawing can be as detailed as an architect’s plan, but a general layout of good quality is also sufficient. The layout should show the location of important areas (i.e., labs, cooking areas, hazardous materials storage areas, mechanical rooms, living quarters, fire alarm/suppression system controls, access ways including stairwells and elevators, gas mains and other areas requiring special attention in case of fire), building construction, and other technical information (figure 1).

Once the maps are completed, they can be posted with your dispatcher or placed in your company’s notebook and carried for reference. Either method is an effective way of insuring access to pertinent information in case of an emergency.


A close inspection of the campus’ facilities will show important areas that could pose special risks:

  • Of the various forms of housing (dormitories, apartments, and individual houses or duplexes, which can be multi-storied and grouped in one section of the campus or spread out) the dorms generally will be the location where fire is most likely to occur. The
  • dorms can differ widely in style, design and construction, and are usually occupied by young, unmarried students.

Dorms’ susceptibility to fire is caused by many factors. Twenty-four-hour residences that can house several hundred people under one roof, these buildings are prone to the most frequent vandalism on campus. The dorm residents are younger and less mature than residents of other campus housing, and are likely to have a wide range of electrical appliances that may cause a strain on the building’s electrical system. Most dorm rooms do not have facilities for cooking and the residents bring in hot plates, electrical skillets, and other cooking gear.

Cooperation between fire and college personnel results in effective pre-incident planning.

Cultural and social differences can contribute to problems affecting the response of dorm students to fire prevention and evacuation procedures. Some residents may have a physical handicap that will prevent them from becoming aware of, or responding to a fire alarm. Because dorm residents change quickly, it is impossible to retain a current roster of those needing special assistance with evacuation. However, you can improve your ability to deal with these problems by enlisting the aid of the campus security department and the housing staff. They will be able to provide you with a current list of residents and any other information which you may require.

Typical example of a building schematic with valuable information necessary for fire and emergency operations.Note the location and serviceability of fire suppression equipment (both normal and special).
  • Laboratories and their storage areas are other locations where additional planning and care are needed. Even small colleges usually have more than one laboratory. These labs may be located in a central science building or may be scattered across the campus in several different buildings. They could contain chemicals, compressed gases, or radioactive materials that could present a more serious threat to your crew than the fire itself. Unexpected hazards may range from highly acidic, poisonous smoke, to explosions and infectious diseases.

Usually a lab’s storeroom is located nearby the laboratory itself. This close proximity could compound your problems in the event of fire because of heat and/or fire extension. Inspect the storage areas as well as the labs, and list the types of materials stored, their locations, and their hazards.

Many times, the use of water as the extinguishing agent can aggravate a lab or storage room fire. Evaluate the types of extinguishing agents you should use and make a note of those selected. Be sure to check the alarm and fire suppression systems that protect these areas, and ask for the names and telephone numbers of at least two responsible persons who are familiar with the lab and can provide needed information in case of an emergency after the normal college business hours.

Labs and storage areas also present hazards other than fire. Chemicals may become unstable and explode or cause the release of toxic gases without producing a fire. It is important that you recognize the need to make arrangements for dealing with this potential problem well in advance of an emergency. Many times the college can provide valuable assistance with this aspect of the planning.

A highly dangerous situation involving a large volume of chemicals could require assistance from the state or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Contact these agencies as part of your pre-fire plan. Become familiar with their procedures and personnel so that your emergency response will be more efficient.

Check with the lab department chairperson at least once per quarter or semester to insure your emergency names and telephone numbers, as well as the information about the labs and storage areas, are still valid.

  • There are many other important areas on campus that should be included in your overall pre-fire plan, such as refuse areas, data processing centers, etc. (see figure 2). These areas will provide a variety of challenges and
  • will require your close attention. As you evaluate these areas, look for potential hazards and methods to prevent a fire from occurring. These preventive measures can be presented to the college, and if they are successfully implemented, you may never get the chance to see your plan tested in an actual emergency.

Response obstacles

When you begin planning your response to an incident on campus, you should first consider the obstacles that could hinder or prevent you from reaching the scene. Many college access roads may be secured with a locked gate or may not be wide enough to accommodate your vehicles. Traffic is always a concern on any college campus, and vehicles parked on or near the access area can also present problems.

In order to plan for this contingency, review your access route with the campus security office. You should work out an arrangement with the campus security department so that they can insure that your vehicles have a clear path to the affected area. It is also a good idea to develop alternate approach routes just in case your primary routes are unavailable. Impress upon the security officers that it is critical that they inform you of any known impediment to traffic and the advisability of responding via another route.

Another traffic related concern you should address is making sure your approach to the building or area is not blocked by college service vehicles. Many times these vehicles are driven by college staff tradespeople (maintenance, security personnel, etc.) responding to the emergency. It is necessary that you point out that by keeping these service vehicles clear of the access route, the tradespeople can accomplish the most good.

After you have obtained the necessary information on the general layout of the campus, identified the areas of greatest risk, obtained the necessary information on hazards and personnel, developed your response plans and alternatives, and insured your access route, you are ready to test your plan. A preliminary walk-through with just the college’s supervisory staff and your fire officers will help you get the bugs out before you involve the rest of your department and the college.

When you have the emergency drill, it should be conducted under the best possible conditions to insure everyone gets the opportunity to perform his task without unnecessary distractions. This is especially important when you are just starting your program on campus to get everyone used to the pre-fire plan and look for weak spots.

After the drill, the supervisory personnel from the first meeting should meet again to evaluate the drill’s performance and make any necessary procedural changes.

Drills should be held on an annual basis at least. Change your drill subject building/area every year so that you can get the widest possible experience for your crews and the college personnel. Changing the drill subject area will also help keep interest in the project. Do not forget to include any other emergency response groups (such as ambulance services or EPA disaster response teams) in your drills. This diversity will improve your response and establish important lines of communications.

It is always important to remember that things will change on the college campus. Building layout, area usage, lab function and personnel can be expected to change regularly. For this reason, it is essential that you continue to check with the college at least twice a year to take care of any operational update that may be necessary on general matters and at least once per quarter or semester regarding any changes in critical areas.

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