All 45 of the campus's residence halls are now protected with fire sprinkler systems, following a massive, voluntary retrofit to protect students in one of the nation’s largest on-campus housing systems. State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan hailed the achievement as an impressive commitment to public safety.
More than 12,100 students in 7,163 rooms are now protected by sprinkler systems. State fire code requires the university to install sprinklers in older residence halls more than 70 feet high and in new construction, but campus officials were determined to extend protection to all residence halls regardless of height. A $27.2 million voluntary retrofit program began in 2005 and was completed this year, covering 31 buildings. Funding included $4.8 million in state funds and $22.4 million financed through the University of Massachusetts Building Authority.
“I am proud of the leadership the University of Massachusetts has shown by making such a significant commitment to the safety of its students. This is an investment that will protect not only today’s students but generations of students to come,” said Coan.
“Through all of our projects, the Building Authority strives to enhance the health and livelihood of UMass students, faculty and staff,” said Katherine Craven, executive director of the UMass Building Authority. “We were thrilled to contribute to this wonderful project, which will only further protect the health and safety of the UMass community.”
“Taking on a project of this magnitude reflects the university’s belief that investing in the safety of our students is a fundamental priority,” said Eddie Hull, executive director of Residential Life. “Some of these facilities were constructed in the 1940s and 1950s, so this was a complicated undertaking that we principally tackled during the summer when residence halls are unoccupied. Our Facilities Planning department did an outstanding job managing the process.”
UMass Amherst, which has never experienced a fire fatality in its 150-year history, has long been aggressive in its approach to fire safety, noted Donald Robinson, director of Environmental Health and Safety. Fatal fires at MIT in 1975, Skidmore College in 1976 and Providence College in 1977 helped prompt the installation of 6,300 smoke detectors in dorm rooms beginning in 1978.
“Cornell University had arguably the best campus fire safety program and they helped us review the fire safety risk on our campus,” Robinson said. Writing in Fire Journal in 1978, Robinson outlined a multiphase program, the seventh and final phase of which was the campus-wide installation of sprinklers. Robinson also stressed the need for educational programs and a continuing strong relationship with the Amherst Fire Department that led to an immediate and dramatic drop in false alarms.
“There is no finish line in fire safety,” Robinson said, “ but we should recognize and appreciate that UMass Amherst has achieved an outstanding level of protection for students living in residence halls.”
The push for a comprehensive residential sprinkler system was led by former vice chancellor for Administration and Finance Joyce Hatch and Residential Life leaders, spurred on by a succession of deadly university residence fires, including the January 2000 Seton Hall University residence hall fire in New Jersey that killed three people and injured 56.
Hull said he will rest easier knowing that the sprinkler systems are in place. However, when it comes to fire, he warned, there are no guarantees, and fire safety education and enforcement will continue to be critical. “We can’t ever relax that vigilance,” he said.
Photo: State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan speaks at a Dec. 5 press conference in Thoreau House marking the completion of a seven-year project to install sprinklers in all campus residence halls.