Fire threat is all too real
If Dr. Jimmy Jenkins grew as indignant about violations of the fire code on the Livingstone College campus as he did about the city manager’s public discussion of them, the college would not have racked up more than 1,000 violations over the past four years.
Let’s be clear. All but eight of the college’s violations were addressed as of last Tuesday, when City Manager Doug Paris dramatically presented City Council a box full of files concerning code violations at the college. Livingstone has worked on the problem. But the college owes the city some $63,000 in fines that piled up as violation after violation went unaddressed for some time.
Considering how serious the consequences of ignoring the fire code could be, Jenkins should be chagrined for the public and his board of trustees to know how often the campus was found in violation. Fines are nothing compared to the tragedy a dorm fire can bring.
Just ask the people who were on the Catawba College campus in October 2001, when a student died in a dorm fire. Students had disarmed fire alarms that had gone off twice that evening. So when a fire of undetermined origin started near student Andrew Grooms’ room, no alarm went off. Grooms became trapped and suffered fatal burns. It was a traumatic experience all around — for the student’s family, the college and the community at large. The Groomses sued the college; Catawba settled out of court.
Fires on college campuses are not rare events. From 2007-2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 3,810 structure fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and barracks a year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Each year, campus fires caused an annual average of two civilian deaths, 30 civilian fire injuries and $9.4 million in direct property damage.
Just in the past month, there have been fires at the University of Nebraska, Howard University, Marist College, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and several other college sorority houses and off-campus apartment — none fatal, fortunately.
Some people are calling for the city to waive Livingstone’s fines, since they’ve accumulated to such a high level. If the city drops its primary enforcement tool, though, what leverage will it have to enforce the fire code at Livingstone going forward? Student safety should be paramount. If fire brought tragedy upon the college as the result of fire code violations, fingers of blame would surely point to the city for poor enforcement as well as to the college for lax adherence. Let’s hope that never happens.