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Full-time firefighters’ fast response helps keep campus safe

by Richard Veilleux - July 23, 2007

When a fire alarm sounds at UConn’s Storrs campus, a cadre of full-time firefighters scrambles into action. The first engine can be on the scene of a fire anywhere on campus within three minutes.

UConn firefighter Patrick Selburg drives across campus to make a routine safety check.
UConn firefighter Patrick Selburg drives across campus to make a routine safety check.
Photo by Peter Morenus

UConn is the only New England public university, and one of only a handful of campuses nationwide, that employs its own paid and fully staffed fire department.

And the three-minute response time is not only faster than most departments – college or town – can match, it far exceeds the minimum standard recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, which is four minutes for the first responder, eight minutes for a full cohort.

“An average response time of three minutes or less is unheard of, regardless of whether it’s a municipal or a university setting,” says Barry Feldman, UConn’s chief operating officer and former West Hartford town manager.

The UConn Fire Department receives about 3,000 fire and emergency calls a year. But the daily business of the 29 uniformed UConn firefighters, all University employees, includes more than responding to those calls.

The department also undertakes building inspections, monthly sprinkler system inspections, valve inspections (some 2,600), and running fire drills, both during the academic year and in the summer when camps and conferences on campus are in full swing.

And during the academic year, firefighters also provide fire safety training to all the community assistants in the residence halls, and to many students.

The University’s 2007-08 budget recommends two additional firefighters, owing to UConn’s growth during the past decade.

“We do many things that other municipal or even city departments don’t,” Fire Chief Francis Williams says, “including emergency medical services, hazardous material emergency response, fire education. And we’re also part of a large mutual aid partnership. We’ve been called to assist many Windham County towns.”

Robert Hudd, director of public safety, adds, “This is a very hard-working department. They have plenty to keep them busy, and they do it well.”

The department has a full complement of equipment, including one of only two aerial trucks in the region.

It also has two engines, two basic life support ambulances, and a pair of hazardous material response trucks, one of which is outfitted to tow a fully self-supporting decontamination trailer in case of a toxic release or nuclear accident.

UConn has had its own department for more than 80 years, gradually growing into the fully certified, well-trained unit it is today.

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.

Williams, the fire chief, says very few campuses have their own departments because they are located in or in close proximity to a city.

“In Storrs, we have local volunteer departments that are nearby,” he says, “but at their size, they couldn’t take care of our daily business.”

Hudd says the fact that UConn has its own fire department sits very well with parents. “Most people have come to expect police service at a major university,” he says, “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 universities of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont all rely on fire departments in the towns contiguous to their campuses for fire protection. The Amherst Fire Department has 40 paid full-time firefighters, and the department in Burlington, Vt., employs 50, while the others use a volunteer force.

All those departments also are responsible for far more than the university that’s located in their town.

The Amherst department, for example, covers UMass, Amherst and Hampshire colleges, and the town of Amherst – more than 75,000 people living in a 28-square-mile area. The Burlington department also covers a town of nearly 40,000 residents.

Ed Comeau, director of Campus Firewatch, an electronic newsletter focusing on issues of campus fire safety, says that besides UConn, he can think of only a handful of full-time, on-campus departments.

These include Clemson University, Purdue, New Mexico State, and the University of California at Davis.

Williams says he’s proud of the services his department provides – services that are complemented by the addition of sprinklers to on-campus residence halls over the past few years.

“The rapid response time, coupled with the automatic fire alarm detection system in the residence halls, allows fires, when they do occur, to be controlled very quickly,” Williams says.

“Sometimes they are extinguished even before the fire has spread to the point where the sprinklers would have activated. And even though the alarm system has evacuated the residents, they don’t know that a fire actually occurred.”

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