NIU fire safety questioned

By Brian Slupski

DeKalb firefighters are concerned that measures to ensure the security and physical safety of NIU students might be dangerous.

Assistant Fire Chief Ruben Nelson is concerned specifically with the crash doors in the residence halls which are locked at all times.

Nelson said he fears smoke from a lower-floor fire might seep into the stairwell. Escaping residents would have nowhere to go but back up the stairs to their floor because all other doors would be locked.

Unfortunately, there still might be students descending the stairs and this could cause mass confusion in a smoky hallway, he said, especially if students have no escape but to go all the way back up to the 11th or 12th floors.

“Once you get into one of those stairwells, there’s no way to get out except to go all the way to the bottom,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he understands the doors are locked for security reasons, but they could be electrically wired to the alarm system to unlock in a fire.

NIU Safety Officer Robert Vest Jr. said it is a matter of physical safety versus fire safety, with the police department on one side for physical safety and the fire department on the other side for fire safety.

“In the past, physical and safety problems have far outweighed fire safety problems,” Vest said.

He said there are more cases of theft and physical violence than of fire. However, he said, the university’s legal department, environmental health and safety office, public safety and housing office will meet to discuss the matter

He said electrically connecting the doors to the alarm system might work, but security problems still could arise due to the university’s pre-alarm system.

Vest said when an alarm is pulled it first only sounds in the senior staffs’ rooms, allowing them to find out if it is a prank. But, the doors already would have unlocked, and this would allow an individual to get onto a floor without the fire alarm being sounded throughout the entire building.

A second concern Nelson raised was the absence of self-closing doors to residence hall rooms. In the past there have been instances where a door was left open to a room on fire and smoke entered the hallway, Nelson said.

Firefighter Jim McCabe said he is “very impressed with the quality of students that are RAs, and I am confident they can handle their responsibilities (which include closing all the doors on their floor in an event of a fire).

“But I still feel it may be above and beyond the call of duty to ask someone to go down a smoke-filled hallway and possibly close a door to a room which contains a fire,” McCabe said.

McCabe said he would hate to “crawl over the body of an RA and think it could have been prevented with a simple door closer.”

As for the self-closing door, Vest said this is a matter NIU will have to look into.

A third concern Nelson raised was over the testing of the standpipes. A standpipe is a pipe which the fire department can hook up its truck to and pump water into. The pipe itself runs through the entire building. This allows the firefighters inside the building to hook their hoses up to the pipe and fight fires on any floor.

Nelson said he feels the pipes should be annually tested because if they are not in good operation, the fire department would have major problems in fighting a fire in the residence halls.

Nelson said the fire department has a good relationship with the university, and would like to work with NIU in addressing these problems.

Vest said NIU is “in the process of documenting all sprinkler locations on campus, and will be formulating a bid for an outside contractor to annually test (the system) according to National Fire Protection Association codes.”

Vest said he is very confident in the fire resistant structure of the residence halls, saying that in 16 years a fire has never burned into another room.

He said, every RA is put through a comprehensive fire safety program which instructs them in ambulance work, using fire extinguishing equipment and putting out three types of fires.

“We are one of the only schools to do this. We have a trained person in fire safety on every floor,” Vest said.

Vest also said NIU has a new state-of-the-art alarm system which still is being installed, and that every one of the alarms is tested twice a year.

As for the problems, Vest said, “We are dealing with this situation as best we can given the current economic climate, as we are with other numerous environmental health and safety issues. It takes time, money and cooperation to solve these matters.”