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Fire safety: A guided tour

By chriscal

Section: Features

March 27, 2009

SPREADING THE MESSAGE : A view of the fire safety trailer Brandeis and the Waltham Fire Department will be bringing to campus April 1 and 2.  Inside the trailer, firefighters  can simulate a real-life fire situation with smoke. The event comes after an increase in instances of covered smoke detectors earlier in the year and is a part of Brandeis’ continued commitment to raising awareness  about fire safety issues.  <br /><i>PHOTO COURTESY OF  Lieutentant John Craig</i>

SPREADING THE MESSAGE : A view of the fire safety trailer Brandeis and the Waltham Fire Department will be bringing to campus April 1 and 2. Inside the trailer, firefighters can simulate a real-life fire situation with smoke. The event comes after an increase in instances of covered smoke detectors earlier in the year and is a part of Brandeis’ continued commitment to raising awareness about fire safety issues.
PHOTO COURTESY OF Lieutentant John Craig

The door to your dorm room is blocked. The fire outside is intensifying by the second. You need to crawl through the bedroom and out the window. Time is closing in.

A few minutes ago, everything seemed fine. You entered your door and sat down in the kitchen. Your eyes took in the fire hazards–paper towels close to the stove, a combustible fireplace and covered smoke detectors–and you didn’t think twice.

And then it started.

The smoke levels started to rise. Your visibility began to deteriorate. The escape routes vanished.

At least you knew it was coming. In real life, you might not have.

In this instance, your dorm room is actually a 27-foot-long, two-room motor home. The smoke is coming from a theatrical smoke machine, and there is an escape. There’s also a firefighter guiding you through the whole experience.

It’s a scene reminiscent of a fifth grade fire awareness program or something out of a movie. But this scene will soon be at a trailer near you–an actual trailer, that is.

As part of an ongoing effort to increase fire safety awareness on campus, the Waltham Fire Department will bring a fire safety trailer to campus Apr. 1 and 2.

The trailer will be set up outside of Rosenthal in the walkway between Hassenfeld Conference Center and Rosenthal, and will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days.

Inside the trailer, members of the Waltham Fire Department will be present to walk students through the simulated experience of being in a burning building.

“It’s kind of a guided tour of what it might be like inside of a fire situation,” Director of Student Development and Conduct Erika Lamarre said.

Lamarre said the event is part of the “renewed commitment we have this year of educating students about the dangers of tampering with fire safety equipment or being careless in the residence halls around fire safety matters.”

The event comes after a surprise inspection of residence halls three months ago found an alarming number of covered smoke detectors, one of the main concerns in preventing fires. Since then, Lamarre has worked to bring fire safety awareness to the forefront of students’ minds.

With the number of fire safety violations rising in recent years, a $150 fine was recently imposed for students found with covered smoke detectors. Over winter break, Lamarre received approximately 15 reports of fire safety violations discovered during routine room checks.

She hopes the experience will help counter the “lack of awareness we see in our student population of the dangers of a potential fire in a residence hall.”

The event is modeled off of fire safety programming Boston College and other institutions have previously hosted. After her graduate assistant, Stephanie Durant-Mattson, mentioned it to her, Lamarre proposed a similar idea for Brandeis.

Lamarre and her office soon partnered with Health and Safety coordinator Andy Finn who was also concerned about the lack of awareness on campus and was looking for a way to inform students. So he reached out to Lieutenant John Craig at the Waltham Fire Department and the idea developed from there.

Finn hopes that students will recognize the importance of smoke detectors and the danger that covering them pose. “It’s really kind of a first line of defense [and] we’re trying to catch an emergency before it becomes a working fire,” he said.

Smoke may seem less dangerous than actual flames, but Finn explained how smoke delays students when exiting from a building. “Just because it’s smoke doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous,” he said. “It may just be smoke, but like the saying goes, where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Though the trailer can’t replicate all aspects of a real-life fire such as the smells or heat, Lieutenant Craig said it recreates the limited vision and claustrophobia typical in such situations.

The trailer, he explained, is typically used during fire awareness programs for younger students ranging from kindergarteners to sixth graders. As such, the Waltham Fire Department has never brought such an event to a college campus before. Though the first of its kind on a college campus, Craig said it serves an important purpose.

“We’re really looking forward to it because [college students are] definitely a group that’s underserviced as far as fire safety goes,” he said.

The event might even be a launching board for future such events with the Waltham Fire Department. Craig hopes to partner again with Brandeis in the future to create fire safety awareness programs for incoming students and their parents.

In the meantime, he hopes to get Bentley College involved and possibly invite members of their life safety team to the Brandeis event.

Many students, Craig said, think covering smoke detectors isn’t that big a deal. In other words, they figure that the sprinklers will just go off and prevent any tragedy before it occurs. Through this event, he hopes to change that mindset and “get the word out that it does happen and [that] a few precautions will make you safe.”

Making sure your smoke detectors are working is one such precaution. According to The Center for Campus Fire Safety, disabled or missing smoke detectors are one of the four common factors in off-campus fires.

The others are alcohol consumption, careless disposal of smoking materials and a lack of automatic fire sprinklers.

College students living in a community residence hall environment can’t just think about themselves, Craig said:

“It’s not just you. You’ve got a whole apartment building or dormitory building full of students, so it’s not fair to cover your smoke detector and think that the sprinkler will go off and take care of it.”

He said there will also be a TV outside of the trailer that will play a video depicting a real-life fire in a residence hall with and without sprinkler systems to show just how quickly fires can spread.

Despite the serious message behind the event, Lamarre said it’s not all doom and gloom; there will be fun and games as well.

“I actually think it’s going to be really fun,” she said.

Outside, there will be treats and balloons. And if you run into a talking Dalmatian named Patches, dressed in fire gear and riding around in a little fire truck, don’t be alarmed. He’s part of the day too. The automated dog can actually hear and talk to people and will serve as a greeter for the days’ participants.

Simultaneously tapping into students’ intellect and desire for fun is one of Lamarre‘s goals for the event.

“I think just going through the experience, there’s always something to learn. And I know that Brandeis students are intellectually curious people who also like to have fun, and so I hope to connect with both of those aspects of the Brandeis student,” she said.

As part of his role as Student Union Director of Community Advocacy Andy Hogan ’11 has worked this semester on issues pertaining to fire safety, so it was natural for him to become involved with this event. Hogan has helped to advertise the event and thinks the trailer is an effective way to raise awareness.

“It’s a really valuable, educational tool and experiential in that you can just go in there and really see what it’s like,” he said. “I know I’m going to be going in to see for myself and I would encourage all students to.”

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