The threat of school violence was well-known to educators, but until the tragic massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, many administrators did not address the threat seriously.
Likewise, most college and university administrators were aware of the safety risks that exist on their campuses, but it took the January 2000 deaths of three students in a residence-hall fire at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., for officials to focus on the lack of sprinkler systems in many student-housing facilities.
“The Seton Hall fire got a lot of attention nationwide,” says Alan Sactor, fire-safety manager at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Many fire-prevention techniques help make a campus safer: having enough fire and smoke detectors; educating and training students and staff about fire safety; designing facilities so that people can exit quickly and easily from a building; and using fire-resistant equipment and materials.
Most of those steps make it less likely that a fire will occur. But fires still can happen, and when they do, sprinkler systems can keep a minor incident from becoming a major tragedy.
“Ultimately, student-housing administrators need to seriously consider the installation of automatic sprinkler systems in the residential facilities they manage,” says Frederick Mowrer, associate professor in the department of fire protection at the University of Maryland.
In a report, “Fire-Safe Student Housing: A Guide for Campus Housing Administrators,” Mowrer says sprinkler systems “have an established record of preventing catastrophic fires in residential facilities, making sprinkler protection perhaps the single most effective weapon in the residential building fire-safety arsenal.”