Coinciding with what a national watchdog group is calling the deadliest year on record for fires at colleges across the country, University of Michigan residence halls are in the midst of extensive fire safety reforms.

According to Campus Firewatch, a monthly newsletter published by Ed Comeau, former director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, 19 deaths have been caused by fires on or near college campuses since Aug. 1.

Since Comeau began collecting fire death statistics in 2000, fires have caused 10 deaths in residence halls across the country across the country. However, Comeau said there is no longer a method for accurately measuring the number of non-fatal fires in residence halls because the National Fire Incident Reporting System began including college residence halls in the same category such structures as military barracks and monasteries in 2000.

The University began outfitting all residence halls with sprinkler systems and new fire alarms in 2002, said Declan Lugin, a captain in the Housing Security office. Michigan has no statewide mandate requiring sprinklers in existing structures, and the National Fire Protection Agency’s Life Safety Code, which Lugin said forms the basis for many fire codes around the country, only requires them in new buildings.

A total of seven residence halls have had sprinklers installed, and the other dorms have plans to install the systems within the next few years. Lugin said the University is generally outfitting two residence halls per year.

South Quad was the first to get a sprinkler system. West Quad, Bursley, Oxford, Fletcher, Barbour and Newberry have also been completely outfitted. Markley is currently receiving its new sprinkler system. Mosher-Jordan will have new sprinklers when it re-opens in fall 2008. Stockwell will be receiving its system as part of its recently approved renovations.

Concern about fire safety on campus spiked in 2000 the deaths of three students in a Seton Hall University residence hall. After the tragedy, the state of New Jersey mandated that all residence halls and Greek houses install sprinklers, and the state also provided the funding to do this.

“I think it was a wake-up call for fire safety services across the country,” Lugin said of the Seton Hall fire.

In addition to sprinklers, new hard-wired alarms and smoke detectors with a consistent power source, unlike battery-operated detectors, Lugin said the cinder block and steel construction of residence halls makes them extremely fireproof. Lugin also said all corridor doors in residence halls are fireproof for up to 60 minutes.

It’s those corridors that made Tony Spica, a former resident advisor in Couzens Hall, feel safe during his three years there.

But RAs receive no fire extinguisher training.

Both Spica and Lugin said the University doesn’t want residence staff to feel responsible for fighting fires, only for helping residents exit the building in an efficient manner.

Lugin said that the only orientation that residents receive about fire safety comes from RAs at the beginning of the semester.

Still, relying on RAs isn’t a foolproof plan. Spica acknowledged that while fire safety is an important issue, it’s generally not the primary concern of RAs.

The University’s true enemy in fighting fatal fires may be student complacency when it comes to responding to fire alarms and exiting buildings quickly, especially late at night or when it’s cold outside, Lugin said.

One of the causes of that complacency could be the number of false fire alarms, which desensitizes residents to real alarms.

The University has taken steps to reduce the number of false fire alarms in hopes that it will improve the student response to all fire alarms.

Since installing plastic stoppers on fire alarm pull stations, Lugin said his office has seen a significant drop in the number of false alarms.

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