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Sprinklers now installed in all UMass dorms

When an unattended candle caused a fire in a room at Cance Dormitory in January 2011, a sprinkler that went off helped keep the blaze in check until firefighters got to the scene.

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 last week marked the finish of the voluntary retrofit program.

Coan said the work represents a significant commitment to the safety of the 12,500 students who live on campus.

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

The state building code is not retroactive, Coan said. New buildings, like the 1,000-bed Commonwealth College dormitory, are required to have sprinklers, but the university was not obligated to install them in existing buildings unless they are more than 70 feet tall.

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

Coan, the father of two daughters who are away at college, said sprinklers give firefighters another implement in their 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 sprinkler system represents a commitment to safety on the part of the university, which has the fifth-largest on-campus residential system in the country. Each room now has one or two sprinkler heads, Hull said.

Donald Robinson, director of environmental health and safety, called the installation of the sprinklers the right thing to do. UMass, which dates to 1863, has never had a fatal fire on campus.

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

In July 1978 Robinson wrote in Fire Journal about a proposed multiphase project at UMass, beginning with installing 6,300 smoke detectors in dorm rooms in 1978. It took 34 years before the sprinkler system 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 involves educating students about fire safety.

Hull said that students are prohibited from using candles, halogen lamps and cigarettes in rooms. Only microwaves are allowed for cooking food.

The event was held at the four-story Thoreau House in the Southwest area, the final dormitory to get sprinklers. Tom Penfield, a senior resident assistant at Thoreau, said 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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