The ideal time for retrofitting a residence hall with a sprinkler system is during the summer, when most of the facilities are vacant.
But that wasn't an option for Rutgers University in New Jersey. Following a fatal fire at Seton Hall University in 2000, state lawmakers passed legislation that mandated installation of sprinklers in all New Jersey residence halls by July 31, 2004.
For Rutgers, that meant $35 million in upgrades in more than 150 buildings in four years. The state provided an interest-free loan to help cover the costs, but the only way to meet the deadline was to do the work while students were living in the residence halls.
By putting together a comprehensive plan and making sure that students were fully informed about what was happening, Rutgers was able to complete the retrofits months ahead of the deadline.
“I think it went extremely well,” says Elizabeth O'Connell-Ganges, associate director for student services at Rutgers. “We learned a lot as we went along.”
O'Connell-Ganges offers these suggestions for other schools who have to carry out retrofits while rooms are occupied:
Put together a team that includes not only facility managers and safety personnel, but also people representing student affairs and residence services. The team needs to be communicating constantly.
“You need to talk about schedules and timeframes from the student's perspective,” she says. “Student-affairs people have a different sensitivity to academic requirements. Students need to know what to expect and when to expect it.”
Have a construction team that is flexible.
To minimize the disruption to students, construction typically did not start until after 8 a.m. and ended by 7 p.m. Work schedules were posted each week, and when workers needed entry to specific rooms (usually for just one day), door tags were placed on individual student rooms 24 to 48 hours ahead of time. All workers entering student rooms were wearing ID badges and accompanied by campus security personnel.
Workers were encouraged to clean up areas as soon as they finished the installation, and as further protection, the school recommended that students cover their belongings with plastic sheets.
O'Connell-Ganges added that the school tried to be especially sensitive to students' needs during exam periods, and in the spring, when many students are under pressure to finish out the school year successfully.
Make sure students are aware of the improved safety that automatic sprinklers provide and the risks associated with a lack of sprinklers.
“Our students were informed about it, and they believed in the value of it,” says O'Connell-Ganges.
Number of residence-hall fires reported, 2001.
Amount, in millions, in property damage from residence-hall fires, 2001.
Percent decline in number of residence-hall fires reported, 2001, compared with 1980.
Percentage of residence-hall fires from 1999 to 2001 caused by cooking.
Source: National Fire Protection Association, “Dormitory Structure Fires,” October 2004