By Gary L. Johnson
America’s colleges and universities are plagued with an average of 1,600 fires annually in student congregate living facilities. The tragic result is at least one death and hundreds of injuries each year.
To minimize such devastation, universities nationwide have adopted policies requiring that dormitories be equipped with sprinkler systems during the renovation of old buildings or the construction of new ones. However, a deadly blaze that roared through a Seton Hall University dormitory in January 2000 catapulted student life-safety to the forefront of crisis prevention, triggering an outpouring of concern from officials, parents, and students. Student-housing administrators now find themselves facing growing pressure to equip all of their facilities with automatic fire sprinklers immediately.
Historically, schools have found traditional retrofits to be necessary but disruptive, multi-year projects, due, in large part, to metallic systems’ inherent engineering challenges. Now subjected to aggressive time schedules, administrators are increasingly relying on alternative materials that still offer superior, reliable performance but feature simplistic, flexible engineering.
One alternative that has quickly gained popularity for retrofits is the installation of CPVC (postchlorinated polyvinyl chloride) fire sprinkler systems. Highly durable and lightweight, CPVC systems exhibit excellent impact resistance and natural immunity to corrosion. The key benefit for dormitory retrofits, however, is ease and speed of installation. These systems are engineered in the field using simple hand tools, so fabrication, changes, and alterations can all be done on-site. CPVC sprinkler systems also employ solvent-cement joining systems to eliminate the need for torches or heavy equipment, thus allowing installation crews to complete projects quickly and with minimal disruption to residents.
As one of only six universities with its own fire department, Notre Dame University is a prime example of a school that places a high priority on fire protection. The school initiated a dormitory sprinkler retrofit program in 1979, but had only completed 12 of its 27 buildings at the time of the Seton Hall fire. In the wake of that tragedy and with 85 percent of its total undergraduate population living in student housing, university fire operations chief John Antonucci presented school officials with a plan mandating that the more than 750,000 remaining square feet of dormitory space be completely retrofitted within a 15-month timeframe. This was seemingly impossible as this project was estimated to span four to five years under best conditions using traditional systems.
In addition to time, cost was also a major issue. Being a privately funded institution, Notre Dame couldn’t rely on the government subsidies that state schools enjoy for such projects. Therefore, any alternative to a traditional system had to be competitively priced.
With time and cost factored together, administrators opted to install a CPVC fire sprinkler systems, further enabling the school to complete six buildings during the 2000 summer break, three buildings over winter break, and the remaining six buildings during the 2001 summer break without displacing a single student. Quick completion of the retrofit helped to ensure the life-safety of its students years ahead of schedule.
Gary L. Johnson is a 26-year veteran of the fire sprinkler industry and business manager for Cleveland-based BlazeMaster CPVC Fire Sprinkler Systems (www.blazemaster.com).