Fire safety for college dormitories
A case history of a problem common to many institutions of higher learning
PROTECTION OF A COLLEGE or university dormitory is not a standard matter. Like fires, all dormitories vary, and yet all dormitories have certain things in common, namely, people and hazards.
The building to be treated here is of masonry construction with exterior brick walls, interior walls of wood, wood floors and roof, and a steel frame. It is a four-story building with a full basement built in 1909. The building has a food service area to serve approximately 100 students living therein.
The dormitory had a center open stairwell of wood, two end stairwells enclosed after a fashion, but in poor repair. Flame-spread characteristics were enough to make any fire protection or safety engineer shudder. An antiquated manual fire alarm system which sometimes worked had no supervision. Here was a condition that appeared to be hopelessly beyond correction at Eastern Illinois U.
The Teachers College Board, after close inspection, authorized President Quincy Doudna to employ the architectural firm of Lundeen and Hilfinger to prepare proposals for rehabilitation. After much consultation, three proposals were submitted:
- That the building be vacated and demolished. This was not possible due to the ever-increasing enrollment at the university. There would be no place for the students to go as certified student off-campus housing was already at a premium, and the basement area served the speech correction department.
- That the interior be rebuilt of fire-resistive materials. This, too, was not feasible due to the length of time the building would have to be vacant to accomplish this.
- That the building be equipped with modern fire protection devices and materials. After the Teachers College Board was assured that this building could be protected, they gave permission to the board’s safety engineer to proceed.
The plan was simple and complete: Early warning, protected exits and reduction of flame spread. Providing this was not simple. Prior to this time, some seven fire-retardant paints had been tested by the safety engineer and two had been approved. It was decided that the attic and basement, center stairwell and halls would require a flame-spread rating of not greater than 15, a fuel contribution factor of 15 or less and a smoke development factor of 5 or less. At this time there were only two manufacturers that could produce such a paint. The contractor chose Albi No. 107. Future plans for maintenance of the building provide for the use of fire-retardant paint throughout.
The author graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1957. As safety engineer. Illinois Teachers College Board, he is active in fire and life safety research. He was formerly assistant post fire marshal, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and commanding officer, 582nd Engineer Detachment, Fire Fighting. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Fire Protection Association and American Society of Safety Engineers.
The early warning that was necessary for this building indicated a completely automatic fire detection system throughout. The safety engineer designed such a system that included vibrating, low ampere drain, horns as the warning device. This was in keeping with a move in the State of Illinois to keep separate the sound of class changes and an emergency alarm. A seven-circuit control panel was used as a locator at the main entrance. Four 6-volt wet cell batteries, with trickle charger, were used to form the emergency stand-by power.
Detectors, depending upon location, were of both the fixed-temperature and combination rate-of-rise and fixtemperature types. Using leased telephone lines, an approved hookup was made to the police department. The police department was chosen because of the possibility of all the firemen being out on an alarm. The police department maintains constant radio contact with the fire department.
In order to protect the egress of the students, the center stairwell was enclosed by using smoke screen equipment. The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company installed these screens on all floors, and this coupled with the fire-retardant paint in the areas enclosed and cut off, presented an excellent means of safe egress. Additional fire doors were installed and old ones repaired so that the two end stairwells were now enclosed. The end stairwells were added after 1909 and fortunately were of reinforced concrete construction.
The completion, testing and acceptance of the physical rehabilitation left the safety engineer in a most happy mood. This same procedure has been repeated many times at our four universities. It will be repeated in the future in buildings lacking the protection necessary for safe evacuation. Our basic program has been one of inspection and training and planned rehabilitation. It has been quite extensive and without the help of the local fire chiefs, the architects and engineers, and contractors, this program would have fallen on its face. The students have been outstanding in their cooperation. We are proud of our combined efforts and will continue to improve the life safety at our four campuses at Eastern Illinois University at Charleston, Western Illinois University at Macomb, Illinois State Normal University at Normal and Northern Illinois State University at DeKalb.