Regulations prevent spread of fire trend to Illinois campus

By Meghan O'Kelly

With fires in student residential buildings on the rise across the nation, the University’s fire prevention efforts have steered campus residence halls clear of the trend.

According to a recent report released by the National Fire Protection Association, the number of fires in residential buildings for students jumped from a low of 1,810 in 1998 to 3,270 in 2005.

The most recent fire in the University residence halls occurred two years ago, said Kirsten Ruby, assistant director of housing for marketing.

“We have a very good track record of safety,” she said, adding that the last fire did not escape the room of origin.

The four-year national average for 2002-2005 was about 3,300 fires a year in student housing buildings.

These fires resulted in seven deaths, 46 injuries and $25 million in property damage each year, the report said.

The most common cause of the fires was cooking equipment, including stoves, hot plates and microwaves, accounting for 72 percent of the incidents.

The University does not allow items including candles, halogen lamps and appliances with an outside heating element in the residence halls.

“It’s a community environment, and those things aren’t safe,” Ruby said. “The list of prohibited items have proven themselves to be dangerous.”

According to the report, sprinklers had been installed in only 36 percent of the student housing buildings where fires occurred during 2003 and 2004. The sprinkler-equipped buildings suffered an average of 89 percent less damage than those without such systems.

Currently, high-rise residence halls, including Oglesby, Trelease, Daniels, Sherman, Wardall and the common area of the Illinois Street Residence Halls have sprinkler systems. Townsend Hall will be completed next summer.

In 2005, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Fire Sprinkler Dormitory Act, mandating that all residence halls must have sprinkler systems by January 1, 2013.

Ruby said the University is in full compliance and started the staggered installation before the law was passed.

Allen Otto is the Facilities and Services fire and safety coordinator. A former firefighter himself, Otto coordinates campus fire safety inspection and education programs with local fire departments.

“I think locally, our concern is the off-campus housing,” he said, explaining that students living in apartments or other housing are not subject to the University’s regulations. “There’s no way to ensure that safe practices are followed by student residents.”