Questions Persist About Suites’ Fire Safety

University officials insist wood framework is safe

By Holly C. Bernard

INDIANA — Indiana University of Pennsylvania student Laurie Irion wanted to live in the new suites for the 2007-2008 academic year because the traditional residence halls no longer suited her. But she was skeptical about her move because of the materials used in the new buildings.

Irion worried that the new buildings were being built in violation of fire code, because they are made of wood. In comparison to older campus residence halls, which are built from mortar, concrete and steel, the new suites seemed like “fire traps,” she said during a March 23 tour of her suite.

Irion is not alone in her concern about the new buildings’ fire safety. A faculty member and a local public-safety official have echoed her concerns.

Willard Radell, an IUP economics professor, raised a similar question at an Oct. 10, 2006, University Senate meeting. In an April 8 email Radell said he claimed no special expertise on fire safety. He just wanted an answer to the same question raised by Irion as he watched the new buildings go up.

“I looked at all the wood framing,” he said in the e-mail. “Saw no firewalls, and as a non-expert said that didn’t look totally safe to me.”

David Burdette, then-vice president for finance and administration, assured Radell during the 2006 Senate meeting that “these buildings meet and exceed standards.”

According to Hank Colker, the architect for the new residence halls, a building must have a sprinkler system. But steel and concrete are not required if the structure is four stories, including a basement, he said.

Sprinkler systems are state-mandated, according to a 2003 article in The Penn. Installations began in 2001, before the new suites were built. The retrofitting of older dorms was completed in 2004, another article reported.

The sprinkler upgrades were ordered following a 2000 dormitory fire that claimed the lives of five students at Seton Hall University. The fire sparked a nationwide awareness campaign in the need for sprinkler systems in residence halls, a 2000 New York Times article reported.

IUP was in the process of installing sprinklers in residence halls before the incident at Seton Hall, Robert Marx, director of facilities management at IUP, said during a Feb. 14 interview in his office. He added that all campus buildings were equipped with smoke detectors before the Seton Hall fire, although they weren’t required.

More recently, an answer to the safety questions posed by Radell and Irion was provided by W. Thomas Borellis, IUP’s current vice president of administration and finance. Borellis deals with the Foundation for IUP, the tax-exempt, non-profit campus-based organization that is funding the construction of the new residence halls. Borellis also oversees the suites projects’ architects, developers and construction companies.

The new trend in building residence halls is construct them of wood because it is a flexible material, Borellis said during a March 18 interview in his Sutton Hall office. Wood construction allows easy additions, such as extra rooms.

Borellis asserted that the stick-built dorms are as fire-retardant as buildings made of concrete and steel.

Colker, the architect, said all of the suites’ exterior walls have two-hour fire-rated gypsum drywall. Interior walls and hallways are one-hour rated. Between each wing of the buildings is a two-hour-rated system. Below the suites are offices, the ceilings of which have two-hour horizontal and vertical firewall certifications.

“This makes it incredibly safe,” Colker said.

The fire suppression systems used in the suites and throughout campus are both wet and dry systems, said Marx, the campus facilities-management director. Wet systems activate immediately when a plastic cover on the sprinkler head is melted. Dry systems activate when a pressure valve is triggered by heat, which releases water.

Although the suites meet federal regulations for fire protection, some disagree.

The Portland Cement Association is based in Skokie, Ill., and represents cement companies in the United States and Canada. Its Web site states: “When it comes to building construction that provides fire protection over the life of the building without disruption, there is no comparison to non-combustible concrete and masonry construction.”

In Indiana, Pa., a local public-safety official, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job, also expressed concern about wood-framed structures like the new suites. The official said that even though sprinkler systems and firewalls are installed, fires still may spread easily between walls.

The local official added that the roofs of the suites are held with staples, not tongue-in-groove construction, like most commercial buildings. This adds to the fire hazard because such roofs may not be sturdy enough to support the weight of firefighters, the official said.

Holly C. Bernard, a Journalism major at IUP (Class of ’08), is from Pittsburgh, Pa.

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