Fire Safety in Students' Interest

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Mariah McKechnie

The Commons Administration Office would like to clear up any confusion or concern surrounding the College’s fire safety policies and procedures. Every year, the College’s Safety Officer Ed Sullivan reviews the College’s fire safety policy and recommends any necessary changes based on national fire safety standards and practices, and specific Middlebury College incidences from the previous year. As the College learned the dangers of halogen lamps, open-flame candles and tapestries, these items were deemed fire safety hazards and banned from student rooms (Middlebury College Handbook, p. 87, Section 21). This information is communicated to students in the College Handbook and in the annual summer letter to returning students. This year Sullivan determined that Christmas lights pose a fire safety threat and thus, should not be permitted in student rooms. On June 5, 2001, Ed Sullivan wrote: “I regrettably have to reverse my support for the use of Christmas lights in student rooms. I have supported in the past the use of these lights in student rooms with the provision that they be turned off at bed time and when students would be out of the room. ”

“I have found out today after visiting a dorm room that these lights do in fact pose a fire risk. The room in question had burn marks all over the walls, window and door frames. If they were to come in contact with combustible materials like paper, cardboard, curtains, etc. a fire could certainly occur.”

“I also realize that we have little control over most rooms since they are not inspected on a regular basis.”

“I do not propose banning Christmas lights on artificial trees during the holiday season. I do feel, however, that Christmas lights laying against a wall could pose a hazard when left unattended over a period of time. We apparently have no control on how long these lights will be left on. Under the circumstances, I feel we have no choice but to advise students that these lights are no longer permitted on the walls anywhere in residential living quarters.”

Unfortunately, this information was communicated after the deadline for Handbook changes and was not included in this year’s Handbook. However, this does not invalidate the policy. Rather, every effort was taken to inform students of this change. All of the commons offices included this information in their summer newsletters and it was posted on the commons Web-sites. First-year students were asked not to bring Christmas lights, just as they were asked not to bring candles or halogen lamps. All of the fire safety month literature, e-mails, and voicemails have highlighted this change and encouraged students to remove Christmas lights from their rooms. Students may question the danger of these lights; however, it is the safety and best interest of students that drives fire safety policy, not a desire to deprive students of the much-loved twinkling lights.

In response to Kevin King ’02, Patrick Ward ’02, and Nina Kieves’s ’02 concerned editorials, (The Campus, Oct. 17) the Commons Administration Office would like to clarify what the authors deem a “new policy” of “destroying” confiscated material. First and foremost, the policy of confiscating fire safety violations is by no means new.

It is clearly stated on page 87 of the Handbook that, “Candles, halogen lamps, [Christmas lights], and portable heaters will be confiscated,” Like drug paraphernalia, these items are illegal and dangerous materials that are not allowed in student rooms. Thus, by informing students that these items are not permitted in student rooms and are a violation of College policy, the College is not responsible for returning these items to students after their confiscation. Do students who have drug paraphernalia confiscated by Public Safety Officers expect to get them back? Students are given adequate notice that fire safety inspections will occur and what materials are not permitted. It is the student’s responsibility to remove illegal items from their room if they do not wish to have them confiscated.

The confusion surrounding the confiscation of fire safety violations is due to a change in the handling of the confiscated items this year. In the past, the commons offices have agreed to store the halogen lamps and candles for students until break periods. Year after year, these items gather dust in commons storage spaces, as students rarely reclaim them. This year, after consulting with each of the five commons, the Commons Administration Office decided that it would no longer be possible for these items to be stored and then returned to students. Because they pose fire safety threats, returning the items to students, no matter what the timing, would be risking their return to student rooms and their continued danger. Thus, students must be responsible for eliminating fire safety violations from their rooms or pay the price of losing their lamps, candles and lights for good.

Finally, my email to students on Oct. 16 stated that the items would not be returned to students and would be sent to the recycling center. This was not to imply that the items would be “destroyed,” but rather that they will be recycled or disposed of properly. Because community organizations will not accept the hazardous halogen lamps, they will be recycled. All candles in good condition and Christmas lights will be donated to appropriate community organizations if possible.

The Commons Administration Office hopes that this information explains the College’s policies and procedures regarding fire safety. The fire safety inspections will be taking place Oct. 22-31. Students with fire safety violations in their rooms are asked to comply with policy and remove the illegal items on their own.

McKechnie graduated in 2001 and is currently the Residential Systems Coordinator.