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Colleges put priority on fire safety

A fire extinguisher is mounted on the wall Tuesday in the lobby of Old Main on the SUNY Cortland campus. The college uses orientation programs to educate students on safe ways to exit buildings and other procedures in responding to fire alarms.

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

A fire extinguisher is mounted on the wall Tuesday in the lobby of Old Main on the SUNY Cortland campus. The college uses orientation programs to educate students on safe ways to exit buildings and other procedures in responding to fire alarms.

You are drifting into a deep sleep, been so for about the past three hours, and then BAM!

A deafening screech hits your ears, vibrating the inside of your head and pulling your heart into your throat.

The dreaded fire alarm.

And if you are in college, this fire alarm will be a common routine. But a vital one.
Fire safety on college campuses is not something any school takes lightly — especially now, with college back in session and students living in residence halls.

Prepping students on what they can do to be safe starts before they even get to the college, according to Beau Saul, the director of public safety at Tompkins Cortland Community College. During early orientation, students are taught what to do in certain situations and what guidelines the schools have in place.

For both TC3 and SUNY Cortland, appliances such as hot plates, toasters and microwaves are not allowed in residence halls. Students are also not allowed to have candles, due to the risk of the open flame, and cannot smoke in the buildings.

SUNY Cortland has become a smoke-free campus, which Frederic Pierce, director of communications for the college, said was meant to not only create a healthier environment around campus but to help eliminate the potential for any accidental fires.
Residence hall directors are trained to know what to do in certain situations, as well. Saul said the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control has visited TC3 to put on educational fire safety programs and train staff on what to do.

Pierce said in the case of a power outage, which would leave each building’s fire alarm system nonfunctional, residence hall directors of each residence hall will inspect every floor of the building for any possible issues until the power is back on.

In most cases, when a fire alarm goes off on a college campus it is due to a false detection being set off by non-hazardous fumes — hair spray or shower steam — said Cortland City Fire Chief Charles Glover.

He said it is not a false alarm as many think it would be considered. The fire detector did its job in recognizing an unusual fume in the air. Detectors do tend to get old and become more sensitive, requiring them to be replaced over time, however.

The city Fire Department responds to the SUNY Cortland campus about 135 times a year for fire alarms going off. Glover said when he first started about 30 years ago, the alarms at the campus would go off more frequently, but the school eventually upgraded its system and the number of ‘false’ alarms went down.

“The school does a good job of maintaining their fire safety systems,” he said.

TC3 and SUNY Cortland regularly have their systems inspected and hold fire drills, said Saul and Pierce. And while the drills allow students to practice exiting the building in case of a fire, there is more they can do ahead of time, according to Glover.

“Know where the exits are. Count the doors toward the exit, left and right, because if the hallway is full of smoke, you won’t know where to go,” Glover said.

For college students, it is important to simply follow all campus requirements, he said. They should also be thoughtful of their neighbors.

“What you do could not only effect you, it could impact your neighbor, too,” Glover said.

That includes waking them up from a deep sleep by setting off the fire alarm.