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Learning To Fight Fire

Hill Interns Learn Safety Basics

“House Fire Kills 3 Students,” screams the headline of the Indiana Daily Student. From the Daily Collegian, “Student Dies in House Fire.”

Large reprints of these headlines, and others like them, surround an audience made up mostly of young Capitol Hill interns Monday in the House Caucus Room, where Center for Campus Fire Safety volunteers are about to commence the classroom portion of this year’s Capitol Hill Campus Fire Academy.

The Center for Campus Fire Safety tracks the number of college students killed by fires in student housing, both on and off campus, and since January 2000 it has identified 78 such fatalities. Most of the deaths, says director Ed Comeau, are caused by defective sprinkler or smoke detection systems, careless student behavior and slow or indifferent responses to fire alarms. [IMGCAP(1)]

In other words, fire-related student deaths are too often easily preventable.

And with the Capitol Hill Campus Fire Academy, Comeau aims to give Congressional interns — crammed as they are into college dormitories and equally vulnerable apartment buildings — the skills they need to ensure their own safety and that of others. Fire prevention techniques, he says, “are a great skill to learn for whenever you may need it. And you will need it. Count on it.”

Joining Comeau in administering the training program are the Congressional Fire Services Institute, the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and the New York State Fire Marshall’s office, flanked by dozens of other fire safety instructors from Colorado, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia.

For everyone involved, the goal is the same: making the headlines a thing of the past.

‘I Need Your Help’

“I could talk to you for hours about this,” says Sherry Kenyon of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, who has trained thousands of University of Colorado resident assistants in fire safety techniques. It’s a sentiment shared by all the speakers during the Capitol Hill Campus Fire Academy’s half-hour opening classroom session.

She asks who evacuated the Rayburn House Office Building, where a fire alarm sounded earlier in the day, and she breathes a sigh of relief when dozens of hands shoot up. Even though no one was really in danger, she commends the interns for having played it safe and taken the necessary precautions.

The temptation to disregard the alarm bells can be strong, says Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Safety Institute. “A lot of these times there are false alarms. But one of these times it’s not going to be a false alarm. Any time you don’t evacuate the building, you endanger yourself and everyone around you.”

It certainly wasn’t a false alarm for Dana Christmas-McCain, an RA at Seton Hall University on the night of Jan. 19, 2000, when three students died in a dormitory inferno. Although McCain escaped the blaze with her life, she is still scarred — both literally and and figuratively — by her close brush with death.

“I was burned on over 60 percent of my body, both second- and third-degree burns,” McCain says. “My scars, I will live with them for the rest of my life.”

The tragedy still weighs heavily on McCain’s conscience. As someone tasked with the responsibility of ensuring her residents’ safety, she regrets being woefully unprepared. Tearing up, she recalls not realizing “how important fire safety was. As an RA, we did not receive any training. Our job was to say to the residents that when the alarm goes off, evacuate. That was the extent of our training.”

And it wasn’t nearly enough, given the propensity of some college students to disregard such alarms. “Some residents hid under their beds or locked themselves in their closets. Evacuation was not an option for some residents because it was too early in the morning. It was snowing outside. It was freezing. I was not enthused about getting out.”

But thankfully, she did get out. Gail Minger’s son, Michael, wasn’t so fortunate.

Michael died in a dormitory fire at Murray State University in Kentucky. Because of her son’s learning disabilities, Minger made safety a top priority as she sought out the right college for Michael. She thought Murray State fit the bill, but soon learned the hard way of the school’s fire safety inadequacies.

“Administrators may tell you a good story, but you have to be responsible and get the information for yourself,” Minger says. “Their information led to Michael’s death. As a parent who lost a child in a dormitory fire, this is a very important day — a day that may save your life.”

Kenyon, who is optimistic about the passage of federal sprinkler legislation mandating sprinklers in all college dormitories and Greek housing, says the hands-on training program in which the interns are about to participate has “the goal of teaching you life skills.”

But just learning the right lessons isn’t enough. Kenyon exhorted those gathered to “go back to your schools and be an advocate for fire safety. I need your help.”

Heating Up

Comeau dismisses the participants from the classroom session, whereupon they exit the House Caucus Room, walk down one flight of stairs, and step out onto New Jersey Avenue. One block south is Longworth Park, where things are heating up fast.

As the interns approach, a volunteer dressed in full firefighter gear ignites a gas-powered trash can fire, and the flames begin licking the air.

Tim Knisely, a member of the Center for Campus Fire Safety’s Board of Advisers, scans the awestruck crowd for a volunteer to put out the blaze. Tanya Hughes, an office coordinator for the House Sergeant-at-Arms, perks up and steps forward.

Knisely hands her the fire extinguisher, which she holds awkwardly, looking uncomfortable and uncertain. Calmly, Knisely delivers a list of instructions: Spray with a sweeping motion. Not just at the fire, but a few inches on either side as well. Only spray for two or three seconds, because by then you won’t be able to see or breathe. Never turn your back to the fire.

Hughes listens attentively, then turns toward the trash can and begins firing away. Within seconds, the fire is subdued, and a cloud of foamy white material blankets the audience. She walks away satisfied, transferring the fire extinguisher to the next willing volunteer.

“It looked very intimidating at first, but I feel confident now that I could apply what I learned,” Hughes says after conquering the blaze. “Before this I didn’t have the hands-on experience to use the fire extinguisher.”

“Some people have never used the fire extinguisher before,” Knisely says. “But today they get hands-on training and get to feel the heat of the flame. We hope this makes D.C. a safer living environment, but we also hope they take this back to where they live and to their schools.”

As the interns are milling about, floating from one demonstration to another, they almost stumble over a little plastic talking fire truck making its rounds, wearing big bright eyes and grinning ear to ear. Nearby, a Congressional Fire Services Institute volunteer furtively operates a remote control and whispers the truck’s musing into an attached microphone.

“I’m gonna go and look for some fires,” it purrs in folksy manner.

Meanwhile, across the sidewalk from the fire extinguisher demonstrations, plumes of smoke billow out of a bright red trailer. Participants enter through one end and emerge out the other, usually looking bewildered due to smoke inhalation. Kenyon had promised that a trip through the trailer “causes you to understand the disorientation that occurs in a smoke-filled environment.”

For Megan Smith, legislative assistant and office emergency coordinator to Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), that disorientation gave her a good smack in the face. “When I got to the door, I pulled instead of pushed it open. Even something so simple as that was difficult because you couldn’t see.”

Many Capitol Hill staffers say the fire safety course couldn’t have come at a better time. Beth Strategier, office manager for Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.), reminisced on the fire that engulfed the Capitol Lounge just weeks ago.

After the Capitol Lounge blaze, and “after Rayburn being on fire earlier this year, that’s what prompted me to take this course,” Strategier says.

Smith says the fire safety program “made me think of my own apartment building, because we never had any real training. We had a fire in my apartment last night, and my roommate and I sat around for five minutes deciding whether to leave.”

Brian Quintenz, senior legislative assistant to Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), won’t be caught unprepared anymore. “I think now that I’ve gone through the training I’ll make sure I know where the fire extinguisher is in my house, and I’ll know what types of fires I can put out.”

September is National Campus Fire Safety Month, and while the Campus Fire Academy is the centerpiece of this month’s fire prevention offensive on Capitol Hill, it is only a prelude to Oct. 28, when Bill Webb and the Congressional Fire Services Institute will shuttle a group of Congressional staffers off to the University of Maryland, where they will undergo a more intensive training program and become “firefighters for the day.”

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