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  March 5, 2001

Campus Fire Department Ensures
Fire Safety in 'City-Within-A-Town'

On a cold winter night, members of the University's fire department entered a burning building and carried a 160-lb. mannequin to safety.

The rescue was a success.

This worst-case scenario of rescuing a make-believe person from a burning building was carried out in Willimantic at a state fire school, with real heat, real fire and real smoke."

It's a scene Francis Williams, deputy chief of the University's fire department, hopes will remain a drill.

Still, he and his team of 23 well trained firefighters - two of them female - are ready to respond immediately to any emergency on the Storrs campus. They also perform routine duties, from fire code inspections in academic and residential buildings to approving an open-flame permit at a new construction site.

Williams, who joined the department nearly 30 years ago as a firefighter and moved up the ranks, became deputy chief in 1995. He has seen a sea change in the department's operations over the years.

Rapid Response
Today, the operation - headquartered in a modern, brick building on North Eagleville Road - is augmented by state-of-the-art equipment, from emergency vehicles to a sophisticated communications center that automatically tracks emergency calls as they come in.

The response time to the scene by firefighters is measured in minutes: three at the most.

Last year, firefighters responded to some 2,400 emergency calls, and they expect a similar number this year too. These include calls from anyone in an academic building or residential hall who smells smoke.

"Every day we're working with faculty, staff and students," says Williams.

Both Williams and Robert S. Hudd, director of public safety and chief of police, view the University as an open community, a city-within-a-town.

Take a look at the numbers: more than 22,000 students are on the campus daily, of whom nearly 9,000 are residents; the Storrs campus has approximately 4,147 employees; and thousands of visitors come to the campus.

"We're always open," says Williams. We're on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We're always working to keep the University safe."

Training and Education
For Williams, the good news is the University has never had a fire fatality, a fact he attributes to the excellent response to past fires and to the amount of campus training and education offered to both faculty and students.

For example, in concert with UConn's environmental health and safety department, firefighters have developed specific programs for faculty and teaching assistants working in the University's laboratories.

"These specific fire safety programs deal with handling flammable and explosive liquids in our labs," says Williams. "We also instruct faculty working in the labs on what to do until the ambulance arrives."

Resident advisors, the students responsible for residential buildings, are also trained to handle onsite emergencies.

"Even though we can get to the scene in a minute-and-a-half to three minutes, we teach the advisors such things as how to control bleeding or perform the Heimlich maneuver," says Williams. "Those minutes could save a life."

Long-Term Commitment
Hudd credits the University for making a long-term commitment to the safety of students and faculty by providing its own specially trained fire and emergency rescue service, a service not generally found on-site at other colleges.

"The University recognized many years ago that our location requires a rapid response in the event of an emergency," says Hudd. The University also enjoys a reciprocal mutual aid, friendly-neig hbor policy with surrounding towns.

The fact that UConn has its own fire department sits very well with parents, says Hudd. "Most people have come to expect police service at a major university, but a campus with its own fire and ambulance service is highly valued by parents, who often are handing the task of ensuring the safety of their children to someone else for the first time."

The department recently created a new post that focuses on inspecting academic buildings for code compliance that can range from overcrowding to blocked exits.

While fire drills are conducted each semester in residential buildings, fire drills in academic buildings are done primarily on request. But that could change in the near future.

"With our new fire code inspection position, we're talking up the need for fire drills in academic buildings," says Williams. "We want to conduct them as conveniently as possible for faculty members."

One of the newest fire prevention and safety changes to the department gives firefighters authority to act as fire marshals, formerly the domain of the state fire marshals. In September, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a statute allowing UConn firefighters broader powers. It includes allowing the fire department to handle such things as blasting permits or temporary liquor permits or inspection of onsite tents - activities that directly involve the University. Although it involves extra work, it does serve to expedite needed local approvals, not only at Storrs but also at the University's other campuses.

Staying Ahead
Williams points to other department changes and upgrades that will serve to support their fire-fighting capabilities. For example, equipment upgrades in the dispatch center will, when an alarm comes in, pinpoint the floor the fire is on and how best to access it.

Another big plus for firefighters is an alarm warning. "You can no longer disconnect a fire alarm in a dormitory without the alarm signaling our communications center," says Williams. In other words, a student can't disconnect the fire alarm to go smoke in the bathroom for a minute without a fire truck pulling up in front of the building.

Williams considers sprinklers, an early warning fire alarm, and automatic door closings that serve to compartmentalize the fire in all campus buildings major improvements to the existing fire protection system.

"We've learned from unfortunate tragedies at other institutions in the country," he says.

New campus construction has also created additional work and responsibilities for Williams and his department. Firefighters now make daily rounds of all construction sites, ensuring no one is in harm's way from construction materials, that appropriate fencing is in place, and that construction activity has not blocked access to the site by emergency vehicles.

Among a myriad routine assignments and emergency calls, firefighters also have responsibility for servicing all 3,000 fire extinguishers on the Storrs campus.

"Our firefighters don't get a chance to sit around and drink coffee," Williams says. "There's not much down time."

Later this year, the University's fire department expects to take delivery of a new special hazards vehicle that will augment the department's shiny, red fleet. The vehicle, custom-built by a Florida company, will be equipped with tools and chemicals to contain an emergency involving hazardous spills, a significant concern at a research university.

The fleet also includes a 35-ton, 100-foot ladder truck that has the capacity to reach a 10-story building, a truck, and two ambulances with a direct communications system to any hospital in the state.

The department has come a long way since 1926. Back then, there were seven firefighters and a Model T fire truck.

Claudia G. Chamberlain