States shirking sprinklers in student housing
Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 11:55 p.m.
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. - Three years after a residence hall fire at Seton Hall University took the lives of three students, experts say New Jersey remains the only state to require both private and public colleges to install sprinkler systems in on- and off-campus housing.
Since the Jan. 19, 2000, blaze that swept through the third floor of a Seton Hall dormitory, 38 other U.S. college students have died in fires.
Campus Fire-Watch, which compiles university-related fire statistics, said all but three of those fatalities occurred in privately owned off-campus housing or school-sanctioned fraternities.
Safety officials fear that only more student deaths will prompt lawmakers nationwide to pass legislation requiring sprinklers in residence halls and off-campus fraternities and sororities.
``What it unfortunately is going to take is a prepayment in suffering - either through deaths or numerous injuries,'' said Jerry Naylis, a New Jersey Fire Safety Commission member who shepherded the sprinkler law through the New Jersey Legislature.
``In the fire service, that is primarily referred to as 'tombstone legislation,' '' he said. Besides New Jersey, experts say only Pennsylvania has taken significant action on campus fire safety.
In Pennsylvania, sprinklers must be installed in on-campus residence halls at public colleges and universities by 2006. The state also allocated low interest loans for private schools to voluntarily install sprinklers.
Despite estimates that sprinklers reduce the death tolls in fires by two-thirds, officials say tight budgets have caused most states and private institutions to balk at putting them in.
``Nobody is opposed to these things in the real world, but it's a question of finance,'' said Ed Comeau, a former fire investigator who started the Massachusetts-based Campus Fire-Watch five months before the Seton Hall blaze.
Donna Henson, who lost her 19-year-old son in a 1999 fraternity house fire, wishes the University of Missouri had placed a higher priority on fire safety.
Dominic Passantino's death has turned Henson into an advocate for sprinklers. But her push for state and federal legislation mandating them in dormitories and frat houses has been futile so far. ``We sprinkle hotels and we sprinkle restaurants,'' she said. ``But where our children are sleeping at night, we do not sprinkle.''
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