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Fire Training Academy Provides Moments of Shock and Awe
For David Grimes it was a real eye opener, even if he couldn’t see clearly. Grimes was trying to navigate his way to safety in what appeared to be a smoke-filled hallway. The smoke was theatrical; the experience was real.
“It was an ‘aha’ moment,” says Grimes, a residence director at Day Hall and a year removed from going through the Residence Life Fire Safety Academy at Syracuse University. “It can be disorienting if you haven’t been there before. Thankfully, I knew this hallway so it helped.”
Grimes will get another chance to experience the feeling during this year’s training exercise, to be held Thursday, Aug. 14, on Mount Olympus. This is the ninth year for the academy, which is required for all of the University’s residence hall directors (RDs) and resident advisers (RAs). The fire safety academy is a day packed with interactive activities beyond a walk through a smoke-filled hallway and discussion of fire safety procedures and codes. Participants also get a chance to see how fire sprinklers work (each residence hall room is equipped with them); get hands- on training in the use of fire extinguishers; and watch a mock dorm room go up in flames.
“The shock and awe of burning a room before the RAs was highly effective,” says Karess Gillespie, an RD at Flint Hall who has been through the academy five times before. “It never loses its impact. You can learn all you want in a classroom, but to see it in person is shocking.”
Classroom style used to be the way fire-safety training was handled, says Bill Longcore, associate director of the Office of Residence Life, which also plays a key role in organizing the academy. “We deemed it ineffective,” he says. “The hands-on nature of much of what we do now impresses upon students the danger associated with being in a fire emergency, and provides a real-life experience that helps them to appreciate the potentially deadly consequences of an uncontrolled fire in a residential setting.”
It was a fire much like what Longcore describes that occurred on the Seton Hall campus in 2000, killing three students. In the wake of the fire, New York State recommended that all colleges and universities hold fire safety training. Syracuse University takes it to the next step.
“The most important takeaway of the day is for the RAs and RDs to understand the associated dangers of fires and how to react accordingly, so they’re able to relay potentially life-saving information to their fellow students during their residence hall floor meetings,” says John Rossiter, safety manager at Environmental Health and Safety Services (EHSSO). The first of the fire safety academies was held in 2006, and since that time, nearly 2,000 students and staff have received training.
For participants, it was a day well spent.
“It was absolutely worthwhile,” says Grimes. He says students and staff are “visual, and want to experience first hand what it looks like when a fire extinguisher goes off, what happens when a sprinkler head discharges or what it’s like to navigate a smoke- filled hallway. You hope you never have to go through the real experience, but if you do, I’ll remember the training I received. When they hear that students have lost their lives in residence hall fires, they pay attention.”
Gillespie has put her training into action. She recalls an incident in which a sprinkler head discharged after a student accidentally grabbed onto it trying to break a fall. “I knew how much water would come from the sprinkler head, and the training definitely prepared me for what to expect and the damage it could create.”
But Gillespie says the training goes beyond that.
“I think it can show real context as to how it affects them (RAs), what the information that we’re giving them means and helps them feel comfortable about taking ownership of their spaces,” she says. “For senior staff, when we’re telling students about fire hazards, we’re not saying this meaninglessly, but with full knowledge and experience of what can happen. Even more, these are skills that stick with you when you leave Syracuse University. I know how to point the fire extinguisher, I know how to move towards an exit if there is fire and smoke. This is a great resource to help prepare students to be full-fledged citizens. This is how we help them beyond their job as an RA.”
An event of this nature could not take place without plenty of help and cooperation. Along with Residence Life and EHSSO, FixIt crews play a role, as does the Syracuse Fire Department and the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control.