Living on Campus

In its side-by-side fire test, the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates the critical importance of sprinklers in dormitories

Hannah Peifer watched intently as the flames quickly spread from the trash can, to the wall and then to the desk. It wasn't long before the bed was on fire and the old TV on the night stand melted from the heat. It took fewer than four minutes for the small trash can fire to turn into an inferno. Moments after the smoke alarm squealed for the first time, the room was engulfed, flames pouring from the small wooden structure, burning hotter and quicker than anyone expected on a rainy Friday afternoon.


Watch the Test

"That was dramatic," the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) senior says after she watched the Dorm Room Burn Demonstration in Hamilton Field, just east of 40th Street in Philadelphia. "The fire just kept growing and growing."

Billed as a 'Sprinklers Saves Lives' event, the side-by-side demonstration vividly shows what happens when a fire breaks out in two dorm rooms, one with sprinklers and one without. Sponsored by the National Fire Sprinkler Association at colleges and universities around the country, it is designed to raise awareness of the fire dangers on college campuses, where warnings and fire safety drills are often ignored.

"It does change attitudes."

Gene Janda, Penn Chief of Fire and Emergency Services

"It does change attitudes," says Penn Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Gene Janda, who planned the event to promote fire safety awareness for the campus and surrounding community. "It provides quite a wow factor."

With a crew from the Philadelphia Fire Department at the ready, a small fire was lit in a trash can in the simulated dorm room without sprinklers. The smoke billowed up, setting off the smoke alarm as the announcer explained how the ensuing 911 calls would unfold. The dispatcher has one minute to get all the information needed to dispatch the fire department and the engine company has 80 seconds to respond. The allotted times seemed absurdly short, but with the fire building, it was already too late.

"What you're looking at right now, ladies and gentlemen," the announcer, a 45-year fire veteran, declares at two minutes and 10 seconds, "is flashover." The room was fully engulfed, all the contents of the room obscured by the flames. "The engine company has yet to hit the street," he adds.

The demonstration had a profound impact on the crowd of more than 200 who braved the rain to attend the annual Safety Fair. Many attendees were from the public safety sector, and even they left with a new appreciation for fire's destructive powers.

Emergency Response Time
"I think about our response time of five minutes and how so much can happen in that amount of time," adds Peifer, a member of the student EMS (Emergency Medical Services) team. "Sometimes you think the school is being overprotective when they tell you that you can't have a toaster or you can't have candles in your dorm room. But it just takes one spark and the whole room is on fire."

Peifer's new respect for fire safety rules is one of the outcomes university risk management and health and safety officials had hoped for in putting on the demonstration. The other was a grasp of the enormous value of sprinklers.

When the same trash can scenario is played out in the sprinkler-protected room, the result is stunningly different. The sprinklers activated and doused the flames soon after the smoke alarm goes off. The sprinkler-protected room shows virtually no damage.

"When I first saw this done a few years ago I called my counterpart at a local college my daughter attends and asked which dorms had sprinklers," says Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety and superintendent of Penn Police. "Then I looked into adding sprinklers to the house I was buying at the time."

Why Fire Sprinklers?
Sprinklers have long been a key element in Penn's efforts to protect students, faculty, staff—and the hundreds of buildings it owns and occupies in the University Center section of Philadelphia. The sprinkler protection effort intensified in January of 2000, after a deadly fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. After that fire, Penn immediately began a five-year capital project to put sprinklers in all dormitories on campus. That effort continued over the last 10 years, and now all sorority and fraternity houses have sprinklers and the university has pushed for sprinklers in off-campus student housing as well.

Rush says that soon after the sprinkler project was complete the university had a scare of its own that drove home the value of the investment.

"It was in a fourth-floor common kitchen. Someone was cooking but didn't turn the stove off," she explains. "At 3 a.m. a fire started and the sprinklers came on and put out the fire. Who knows how many we could have lost that night? After that there was really no going back."

Rush explains that many of the senior leadership from 2000 are still with the university and their commitment to public safety, fire protection and risk management has only grown.

"I've been here since 1994, and the trustees realized a long time ago that safety and security were a big factor in deciding where to send your kids," says Rush. "We knew that we had to get that right. The philosophy that safety and security are a number one priority is embraced by everyone."

That mutual commitment has made FM Global and Penn ideal partners. It's a relationship that dates back nearly 30 years. Today, FM Global covers all of the university's properties, including its four hospitals and many physician practices located throughout the region.

"FM Global is really part of the family."

Ben Evans, Executive Director, Office of Risk Management and Insurance

"FM Global is really part of the family," explains Ben Evans, executive director, office of risk management and insurance.

"Their field engineers are on campus on a regular basis. The research and the science that goes into their recommendations really help us influence the people on campus who ultimately make the decision about where to invest our dollars. FM Global is really there for us."

"We also consider the University of Pennsylvania part of our FM Global family," says Amy Daley, assistant vice president, global practice leader, education, healthcare and affinity groups. "Being included in their 'Sprinklers Save Lives' event is just one piece of our partnership working to enhance the university's resilience."

A City in Itself
Evans explains that Penn is almost a city in itself. It operates a multilocation healthcare system, museums, athletic complexes, theaters, hotels, research facilities, and even has its own chiller plant. It has many historic buildings, more than 35,000 employees and almost 25,000 students, nearly half of whom live in college-owned, operated or affiliated housing.

"There aren't a lot of carriers that can do what FM Global does."

Jennifer Kerr, senior vice president, Marsh

"There aren't a lot of carriers that can do what FM Global does," says Jennifer Kerr, senior vice president at Penn's insurance broker, Marsh. "They have a breadth of coverage and capacity that allows them to build well-rounded solutions for a place as diverse as a university with all its different property classifications."

Karen Whalen, the FM Global field engineer on the Penn account, is a regular visitor to the college campus. She applies all of FM Global's protection guidelines, its years of engineering and fire protection research, and the knowledge gained from its claims experience to the 302-acre (122-hectare) campus and the school's other properties throughout the region.

"We have our internal guidelines on how to address specific occupancies, what we need to look at every year and the areas we need to focus on that ultimately drive losses," she says. "The people at Penn are great. They are very aligned with our loss prevention philosophy and they take our advice very seriously."

Safety First
Whalen says the university's commitment to loss prevention is evident in every group she works with, from fire and emergency services, to real estate services, to facilities managers and various project managers and contractors.

"When FM Global does inspections, we are always with them and we take our own notes," Chief Janda says. "If they see something that needs immediate attention we'll address it right away. They are really focused on the important systems and they might see something that we walk by every day. It really helps us."

Whalen explains that it takes a team of FM Global staff, including Account Engineer George Schork, to keep up with the dynamic, growing and ever-changing portfolio. Working together with the broker and other internal resources, the team helps the university stay atop emerging risks as the school builds additional facilities, adds real estate and develops programs. FM Global is an active partner in loss prevention at the planning stages of major renovations and construction projects.

"I would say we've had a seat at the table for seven or eight years," explains Tom Tarczali, FM Global assistant vice president and senior account manager. "We provide plan reviews and offer information on protection early in the planning process. It's just more cost-effective than trying to retrofit a solution later. And we can help make sure they have the right sprinklers installed or a strong-enough water supply to properly protect a new facility."

Penn's commitment to loss prevention has also produced tangible financial benefits. FM Global has lower loss experience than its peers because of its clients' focus on risk improvement and business resilience. As a mutual company, FM Global shares the benefits of overall lower loss experience with its clients through its membership credit program, a policy credit upon renewal. Since 2001, Penn has received more than US$5 million in membership credit.

"Our focus is to always do what we can to protect the assets of the university and not sustain losses," Evans concludes. "And the membership credit is a very nice bonus for being diligent about loss prevention."

Watch the Test

Download FM Global's:

Related articles: