Fire On Campus

The threat of a major fire on one of our Oklahoma campuses is something that we live with on a daily basis. Higher education’s facilities are filled with combustible materials, complicated processes, flammable substances, and human beings. These factors can easily add up to death and destruction if everyone isn’t working together to prevent fires. 

The Causes

Fire is the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States, yet most people ignore it.  More than 150 workplace fires occur every day.

Fire develops from a mix of three components—fuel (such as paper, oil, wood, etc.), oxygen (present in the air), and heat (from flame, electricity, friction, or chemical reaction).  Some of the specific fire hazards that are found in most workplaces are:

Flammable liquids like oil, gas, solvents, and other chemicals are a fire hazard mainly because of their invisible vapors, which spread rapidly through the air and can't be seen.  When these vapors come into contact with an ignition source, fire results.  (Have you ever heard of someone being burned while using gasoline as a cleaning agent in the garage?)

Smoking—lighted cigarettes and matches—can easily ignite any-thing that is capable of burning, such as wood, paper, or flammable liquids.  While most institutions don’t allow smoking inside facilities, it’s not uncommon for Oklahoma to have building and grass fires caused by the improper disposal of cigarettes or matches. A fast traveling grass fire on your campus can be a real possibility in our Oklahoma summer drought season.

Space heaters are another fire source, because they can easily be tipped over.  Before using a space heater in any campus facility, you should receive approval from your institution’s administration, and the space heater should be the type that shuts off automatically when accidentally tipped over.

Welding and cutting operations are fire hazards, because of the flames and sparks that result from the operation. Do you remember the famous fire in the mile-long building at Tinker Air Force Base years ago?  It caused widespread damage—all from sparks from a welding operation.

Spontaneous combustion is a surprising cause of fire.  It’s the slow buildup of heat in flammable materials, which eventually erupts into fire.  Spontaneous combustion is easily prevented by placing flammable materials in approved storage cabinets or cans.  One example is the oil-soaked rags found in all automotive shops.  At the end of the day, these oily rags are placed in a tightly closed metal can, which limits the oxygen available to promote burning.

Chemical reaction is a possible source for fire in higher education, because of the prevalence of chemicals on campus.  When in-compatible substances—air, water, heat, or other chemicals—mix with particular chemicals, that’s reactivity.  You may have noticed placards on the doorways of science buildings and laboratories on your campus, which are there to notify you and local firefighters of the hazards that exist at the site. One of the hazards of which these placards warn is reactivity.

Fire & Life Safety Codes

National, state, and local governments have developed standards and regulations governing fire and life safety at public institutions.  You will see proof of these codes at your institution in the emergency lights, lighted exit signs, fire extinguishers, fire-rated doors, etc.  These codes mandate the occupancy load, the numbers of doorways and means of egress, etc.  The advancement of fire prevention technology—explosionproof lighting, flammable safety cans and cabinets, heat and smoke detectors, and computerized alarms—has prompted revision of fire and life safety codes.  Let’s not forget the fire prevention education that is now a part of the common school curriculum.

Older facilities on your campus may meet only minimum fire and life safety codes, while the newest buildings are up-to-date with the most modern fire and life safety technology.  This is because the older campus facilities were built well before the establishment of most of these codes, and public institutions are entitled to certain exemptions to ensure they don’t become financially strapped by trying to attain total compliance at one time.  Slowly, but surely, campus facilities will be brought up-to-date for the protection of occupants.

Local and state fire marshals are the regulators of compliance for fire and life safety codes, and they have been instrumental in the establishment of these regulations. It has taken the deaths of many to enact these safety codes! Chances are your local firefighters are able to inspect your campus only a few times a year, so it’s up to the employees of the institutions to ensure that fire prevention equipment is inspected, maintained, and working.  It’s up to employees to ensure that emergency exits are not blocked, locked, or chained to inhibit free egress from a burning facility.  It’s also up to employees to keep fire doors from being propped open.  The plus side to all your effort is that you can use the same information in your home to protect your loved ones.

Types of Fires

Fires have been classed into four categories:

Class A fires are made up of ordinary combustibles or fibrous materials, such as wood, paper, cloth, rubber, and some plastics.

Class B fires are made up of flammable or combustible liquids, such as gasoline, kerosene, paint, paint thinners, and propane.

Class C fires are made up of energized electrical equipment, such as appliances, switches, panel boxes, and power tools.

Class D fires are made up of certain combustible metals, such as magnesium, titanium, potassium and sodium.  These metals burn at high temperatures and may react violently with water or other chemicals, so they must be handled with care.  These fires must be fought correctly in order to prevent more damage or injury.

Extinguishers

Regulations require the placement of fire extinguishers at regular intervals in public facilities.  Extinguishers come in different types to fight the different classes of fire, so it is important that you have training in their proper use if your institution has given you the job duty of fighting fires.  Some institutions prefer that employees do nothing more than pull a fire alarm and evacuate the facility—they want you to leave the fire-fighting to the professionals.  Still other institutions have empowered some of their employees with the training and knowledge to judge whether a fire can be fought with-out endangering anyone.  Using the wrong type of extinguisher on a fire or the improper use of an extinguisher can lead to more extensive damages or injuries.

Safety Tips

Fire safety is often a matter of common sense—if people would only use it.

Fight or Flee?

You just opened the door to your office and have discovered a fire in the trashcan…do you fight the fire or do you close the door and flee?  It will be your call.  The one thing your institution will not want is your injury or injuries to others in the facility.

We’ve mentioned many times that your department or facility should establish an emergency action plan and have trained employees on what to do in case of emergency.  If, and only if, you have been trained in the use of fire extinguishers, may you try to put out the fire.

Make sure of the following:

Here are some additional tips:

You’re Trapped!

Elementary Fact

It is a fact that some of the most extensive fire prevention education has occurred in U.S.  elementary schools.  These children are encouraged to bring their training home to their families, and they do it in record numbers.

Then why do adults continue to ignore fire alarms? Why do adults disable smoke detectors?  Why do adults play with extinguishers?  Why do adults do absolutely nothing when they detect a burning smell?  Unfortunately, we have no answers to these questions.  If a 2nd grader can learn and practice fire safety, can’t you?

Other Sources

It takes less than three minutes for a free-burning fire to reach over a 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  The smoke you inhale during a fire will affect your cognitive functions, and you won't react in a normal manner. 

There’s much more to learn about fire safety, and here are a few Internet sites that you may find informative:  www.ou.edu/oupd/ fireprim.htm; www.nfpa.gov and www.nsc.org. In addition, our library contains several fire safety videos that your institution may borrow—call us at 405/ 325-8069 or send us email at lwarner@ ou.edu.