Fire Prevention with a College Twist

Fire Prevention with a College Twist

Texas U. fire marshal’s worries range from people to chemicals

Chemistry building fire scene is inspected by H. B. Whitworth, fire marshal at the University of Texas.

Texas Student Publications photo, Jim Bandy

One man in Austin, Tex., definitely doesn’t want to set the world on fire: H. 13. Whitworth, the University of Texas’ first and only fire marshal. Both the former fireman and the fire prevention office he directs mark their ninth year on campus this fall.

The challenging aspect of Whitworth’s job is that he must work to prevent fires on a campus where science labs contain so many potential fire problems. Nearly every known chemical is used in the labs.

To lessen that danger and prepare for emergencies on the campus with 45,000 students and faculty and staff members, Whitworth uses top-notch equipment and strictly-enforced safety rules. University equipment is modem and has been approved by Underwriters’ Laboratories. The fire marshal has improved not only the quantity but also the quality of fire fighting equipment. Solid-stream nozzles were replaced by fog nozzles. Whitworth also banished soda and acid fire extinguishers.

An improvement on campus that the City of Austin made and Whitworth welcomed was the installation last fall of an emergency reporting system. This gives university personnel a direct line to the Austin Fire Department by using one of four special stations. Campus fire alarm systems simply alert one building of a fire, and then the city department is called.

Whitworth believes the tragic thing about fires is that most people think, “It couldn’t happen to me.”

“They think they’re safe because the building is fireproof,” he said. “Well, the things inside aren’t fireproof, and neither are human lives. Only involvement makes people wake up.”

The fire marshal tries to wake people up before tragedy does. He and his two helpers do not do major fire fighting, but they work to eliminate fire hazards and educate the campus population.

They study building plans to recommend safety features. They haul off chemical wastes, such as benzene and ether, from science labs and bum them in a sandpit outside of town. They teach science professors to store highly flammable materials outside buildings so that an accidental explosion will cause less damage.

Extinguishers inspected frequently

Whitworth’s assistant, Fire Inspector Henry Gilliland, another former fireman, inspects buildings and corrects fire hazards. A student, Thomas Edwards, is employed to maintain the nearly 4,000 fire extinguishers and 300 fire hoses on campus. Extinguishers in critical buildings, including those used for chemistry, physics and experimental science, are inspected monthly. Others are checked two to four times a year.

Not just any type of fire prevention equipment can be used in every building. Water-filled extinguishers, for example, would be disastrous if sprayed on some chemical fires.

“We don’t even put a fire hose in certain buildings,” Whitworth said, “because someone might get excited in an emergency and spray the water where he shouldn’t.

Carbon dioxide extinguishers usually are used in labs with delicate experimental equipment.

Whitworth himself handles administrative duties and specific problems of anyone on campus needing his services. In his red van, which is equipped with everything from oxygen masks to bandages, he can keep in touch with faculty, staff and students by means of a two-way radio.

Checks campus events

He also attends campus events, such as music department recitals, to make sure that smoking is kept to a minimum, and he works with the cheerleaders in planning torchlight parades and bonfires.

Last spring, a campus drama group presented a play in a room at the student union building. As part of his routine inspection, Whitworth surveyed the stage area and found it unsafe for theater use because of a lack of emergency exits, crowded conditions, and dangerous wiring. He therefore recommended that performances stop because of the fire hazards.

Giving instruction on fire prevention and first aid to new campus security officers and custodians is another duty. Whitworth also keeps university offices informed of fires on campus by issuing monthly reports. These memoranda explain how campus fires started and how to avoid them in the future. His reports back up his estimation that 75 to 80 percent of all fires are caused by carelessness. For example:

“A fire resulted in heavy damage to an IBM machine, valuable data was destroyed, and there was minor damage to the interior of one room,” the fire marshal recalled. “The fire was caused by a long, thinly insulated extension cord used to transmit power to the IBM machine. We have recommended many times in the past, and we repeat, only wire that is approved and installed by a competent electrician should be used.”

Smokers create problem

Smoking in classrooms is enough to make a fire marshal do a slow burn, especially when prominent signs outlaw the practice.

“Many fires are caused by smoking in class, but what are you going to do when the professor sits up front and smokes?” Whitworth asked.

While small incidents are fairly common, serious campus fires are few and far between. The last major fire Whitworth recalled was in August 1965, when a blaze in the 27-story University Main building, or Tower, destroyed one entire floor and seriously damaged two others. The fire started when air-conditioning facilities were being installed and metal heated by a cutting torch dropped on stacks of paper and books in the next room.

One of the more recent fires occurred last January in a chemistry building research lab. Minor damage to lab equipment occurred when hydrogen gas released from a chemical reaction caused a small explosion and fire. Whitworth’s task was to investigate the cause and determine the extent of the damage.

Whitworth credits the small number of dangerous incidents to superior equipment and to the awareness of people dealing with dangerous chemicals that their experiments literally can go up in smoke if they aren’t careful.

Whitworth’s staff members believe the good fire record also reflects the efforts of their silver-haired superior.

“He takes his job seriously,” his student assistant said. “He’s hard-working, and he keeps up on all the latest techniques.”

Whitworth began his career almost accidently. The Bastrop, Tex., native was looking for a job “to make a living” in Austin during the depression and was accepted as a city fireman on July 1, 1937. He spent 11 1/2 years fighting fires before a rescue forced him to take up fire prevention work.

One night fire trapped a student on the third floor of a three-story building at what is today Huston-Tillotson College in Austin. Whitworth had to carry a 1 1/2-inch charged line to the top floor alone.

“I don’t know how I did it,” he said. “I couldn’t do it again.”

Because of his company’s efforts, the fire was contained enough to give other companies time to arrive and rescue the student. But Whitworth ripped a hole in his diaphragm in his struggle to carry the hose.

Fire prevention experience

He couldn’t fight fires anymore, so he went into the fire prevention office for 12 years and was an instructor for six summers at the annual firemen’s training school at Texas A&M University. He values his fire fighting experience in his current work.

Whitworth came to the University as its first fire marshal in 1960.

“I used to inspect the campus as part of my job. We suggested that the school organize its own fire prevention department, and when it did, I was offered the job as director. It was a greater challenge, so I took it.”

He said of his duties as fire marshal, “There is so much that can be done to lessen hazards or promote better fire safety and protect lives. For instance, I’d like to see better fire safety features incorporated into building plans.”

So he keeps striving for higher goals, and the university has a more fire-safe campus than it had a few years ago.

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