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Sprinklers now in all UMass dorms

Less than three years later, every room in the 45 residence halls on the University of Massachusetts campus has sprinklers, part of a seven-year, $27.2 million project focused on 31 buildings and completed over the summer.

With State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan in attendance, the university Wednesday marked the finish of this voluntary retrofit program in which all dormitories now have sprinkler systems

Coan said the work represents a significant commitment to public safety for the 12,500 students whose homes are on campus.

“If a fire should occur, it’s like having a firefighter in that room with a hose,” Coan said.

Coan said the state building code is not retroactive, so that while new buildings, like the 1,000 beds that will be part of the Commonwealth College will have sprinklers, the university, except for high rises and buildings 70 feet and over, was not obligated to install sprinklers.

“This is an investment that will protect not only today’s students but generations of students to come,” Coan said.

As state fire marshal, and father of two daughters who went off to college, Coan said sprinklers give firefighters another implement in the tool box and peace of mind to parents.

“It’s a safety blanket spread throughout this campus,” Coan said.

Eddie Hull, executive director of residence life on campus, said the sprinklers are aimed at saving lives and protecting property. He said he appreciates the commitment to safety at the fifth largest on-campus residential system in the country.

The work, pushed by Joyce Hatch, the former vice chancellor for administration and finance, was complicated in that it had to be done when the residence halls were not being used. Each room now has one or two sprinkler heads.

The event was held at Thoreau House, a four-story dormitory in the Southwest area, the final dormitory to get sprinklers.

Donald Robinson, director of environmental health and safety, called the installation of the sprinklers the right thing to do for the residential students.

Though dating to 1863, UMass has never had a fatal fire on campus.

“It is my intention we never do,” Robinson said.

In July 1978 Robinson wrote for Fire Journal about a proposed multi-phase project concluding with the sprinkler system. It began with 6,300 smoke detectors in dorm rooms in 1978 and it took 34 years before sprinkler installation was completed.

“There is no finish line in fire safety, but we should recognize and appreciate that UMass Amherst has achieved an outstanding level of protection for students living in residence halls,” Robinson said.

Michael Swain, fire prevention officer, said in addition to the sprinklers, all halls have sophisticated fire alarm systems and upgraded emergency lights.

Part of the work on campus is also continuing fire education for students.

Hull said that students are told about rules such as no candles, halogen lamps and cigarettes in rooms, and no cooking except in microwaves.

Tom Penfield, a senior resident assistant at Thoreau, said he appreciates the safety measures. He went through a two-week fire safety course during the summer and leads two fire drills each semester.

The investment is well worth it, he said. “You can never put a price on safety.”

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