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ISSUE 117 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/10/2003

Fire sparks safety concerns

By Emelie Heltsley
Staff Writer

Friday, October 10, 2003

Recent fires at the University of Minnesota fueled student concern about St. Olaf’s fire safety in honor houses and residence halls.

All 17 St. Olaf honor houses meet rental safety codes. Each bedroom and most common areas have smoke detectors. Any house over two stories high has fire escape ladders, all honor houses have fire extinguishers, and all houses are smoke-free.

Not only do city officials check the houses, but St. Olaf custodians go into the houses every day and report any possible fire safety concerns, such as flammable materials.

"Right now," said Pamela Mannebach, assistant dean of students and director of residence life, "the major concern is a messy kitchen, but [the custodians] would let us know if there were something more serious."

The cause of the U of M fires is unresolved. Officials have ruled out electrical problems and negligence on the part of the landlord. Some students in the U of M rental houses smoked, propane was stored near their porch, and there was a dismantled fire alarm in the house.

"We can suppose it to death," said Mannebach, but emphasized that St. Olaf doesn’t know for sure, because they are not doing the investigation.

There has only been one honor house fire at St. Olaf, and that was caused by lightning. The cross-country house was hit a few years ago during Week One. Luckily, the cross-country team was away on a retreat and no one was hurt in the fire.

Residence hall fire safety measures are different than house safety measures. Because the halls were built at different times (spanning 50 years), each one has different fire safety measures. Rand and Ytterboe have panels showing exact spots where fire alarms were pulled. Larson and Mohn have panels as well, except their panels show the floor of the alarm, not the exact spot. Kildahl has different sounding alarms for different areas of the building. The rest of the halls have "pull" fire alarms.

Every residence hall room has a smoke detector that doesn’t set off the main building alarm. When a room smoke detector goes off, it is the student’s job to pull one of the main building alarms. There are smoke and heat detectors in hallways as well. Main residence hall room alarms don’t go straight to the Fire Department; the school has to call. Alarms do go to the boiler room, however, so someone on campus will know there is an alarm going off.

Through the years, there have been several small fires in the halls. In the spring of 2002, there was a fire in Larson caused by smoking in a room. Carpet, furniture, and some belongings were damaged in the fire. In 2000, a candle burned a desk in Ytterboe. During the 1999-2000 school year, there were two trash can fires caused by smoking in Ytterboe and Ellingson.

All furniture provided by St. Olaf is fire retardant and will not flare up if it catches on fire. "Your room would melt if anything else," said Mannebach.

Recently, a smoke detector in Rand was dismantled. Tracy Johnson, the area coordinator for Rand, wrote in an e-mail, "If anyone in the future tampers with any part of our fire safety system, they could be removed from campus housing and reported to the police."

Mannebach said, "You cannot tamper with fire equipment and not have consequences. This is not something I fool around with or find acceptable."

"The no-candle and no-smoking rules are for safety," said Mannebach. "When you forget about [a candle or a cigarette] in college, you put the whole campus at risk." One common misconception is that all alarms are only tests. St. Olaf only tests fire alarms twice a year --once in the fall and once in the spring. "When an alarm goes off, something is wrong," stressed Mannebach. "I want students to get out."

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