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College fire sparks sprinkler demand

A recent fire at a State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase College student housing building has spotlighted the importance of requiring all college dormitories to have automatic fire sprinklers, according to leaders of the New York Fire Sprinkler Council, a division of the Mechanical Contractors Association of New York.

The four-alarm fire, which broke out on the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend (September 4), required eight different Westchester County fire departments to extinguish.

It destroyed students’ belongings and displaced over a dozen, forcing them to move to temporary housing. The dormitory, located on the campus’ “K Street” did not have fire sprinklers installed.
The National Fire Protection Association notes that fires in dormitories jumped 70% from 2,490 in 1983 to 4,230 in 2014. College students often face increased risks due to many students attempting to cook for themselves for the first time without supervision, frequent overloading of electrical sockets, unattended flames on candles, incense and smoking.

“Thankfully no one was injured in the SUNY Purchase fire, but this incident highlights the risks of placing students in campus housing without fire suppression systems.” said Tony Saporito, Executive Vice President of the Mechanical Contractors Association of New York, Inc. “Automatic fire sprinklers not only put out fires quickly, but statistics prove they save lives and property.”

Pending New York State legislation, introduced by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-103, Ulster & Dutchess Counties) would require all SUNY and City University of New York (CUNY) campus dormitories to be retrofitted with fire-sprinklers (Assembly Bill #A1217). Unfortunately there has never been any real urgency for the state to advance this public safety legislation first introduced in 2003. Many in the fire services believe the need for action is long overdue.

“While we are all thankful that no one was injured in the dormitory fire at the State University of New York at Purchase earlier this month, the incident illustrates the pressing need to install appropriate sprinkler networks in each and every residential building on state university campuses,” said Assemblyman Cahill.

According to Campus Firewatch, there are approximately 3,810 college campus housing fires annually, resulting in 170 total deaths nationally since 2000.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, modern fires burn hotter, more toxic and 800% faster than 30 to 40 years ago due to the increased use of petroleum and chemical based compounds and synthetics in modern furnishings and building materials.

The assemblyman continued, “Legislation that I sponsor, A.1217, would ensure a safe environment for students, faculty and staff by requiring SUNY and CUNY institutions to assess the safety of their facilities and develop an action plan to remedy any shortfalls, including the retrofitting of buildings with a fire suppression system that is in accordance with modern industry standards. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues in the legislature, the New York Fire Sprinkler Council, SUNY and CUNY administration and other advocates to advance this important measure.”

In 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act into law, which mandated that New York private and state universities simply notify students whether their residential facilities have automatic fire sprinklers.

The law was passed in the wake of a fatal fire at Marist College in Poughkeepsie in 2012, killing three students. In New York State, residential college buildings are not mandated to have fire sprinklers unless they were built after 1984 or have undergone major renovations since then.

New Jersey required all college housing to have sprinklers following a fatal January 2000 dormitory fire at Seton Hall University, which killed three students and injured 58. Other states such as Wyoming, Delaware, Illinois and Wisconsin require fire sprinklers in student residential buildings as well.

Fordham, New York University, Columbia, Cornell, Wagner, Hofstra, C.W. Post and St. John’s are among New York higher education institutions that have taken proactive steps to protect student-residents by installing fire sprinkler systems in new and existing dormitories.

“Laws requiring New York colleges to simply notify students of whether fire sprinklers are installed will not stop an actual fire from happening. It is time for the state to go further and require that all student housing in New York State have fire sprinklers that will protect our young people, who are the next generation being groomed to lead our nation,” said Saporito.

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