College to adjust fire safety policy, penalties

In light of a recent tragedy at Seton Hall in which three students were killed in a dorm fire, Williams is currently reviewing its own fire safety program. In order to address the current situation, the Campus Safety and Security Committee (CSSC) has drafted a proposal that would change some of the existing rules on fire safety.

The new policy will address three elements: the use of hallways for storage space, the covering of smoke detectors with plastic bags and leaving cigarette butts in buildings.

According to the proposal, “State and local laws prohibit any personal items, including some that may seem harmless, in residential halls and corridors.” The proposal is clear that every hallway in student housing must be kept free of personal items, including footwear, bikes, recreational gear and furniture.

The fire marshal will continue to leave notice if an area is in violation of this policy, as is currently the case, but also states, “if the items are not removed by the deadline, Buildings and Grounds (B&G) will remove them.”

Since Williams does not have the space to store such items, they will subsequently be donated to a social service agency.

The second aspect of the plan seeks to address the issue of students placing plastic bags over smoke detectors or disconnecting the battery. Instead of issuing a fine for this violation, the proposal states, “placement of any covering over a smoke detector or disconnection of a battery from a detector will result in immediate probation for the student or students assigned to that space.” The probation would become a part of the student’s permanent record.

The third worry of the committee is the careless use and improper disposal of cigarettes. This concern is fueled by the incident of a fire in Williams Hall on Jan. 5 that is believed to have been caused by a smoldering cigarette.

In order to prevent this problem from continuing the proposal states, “improper disposal of cigarettes as noted by the fire marshal’s office or the Security Office, will result in a fine of $50.”

“What’s interesting for the College to know and especially students is that as a department the number one issue for B&G besides renovating buildings, building new buildings and keeping the grounds in good shape and all of the other things that we are charged with doing is to make sure that students are safe,” said Tom McEvoy, director of Housing and CSSC member.

“I think that students don’t really think about fire safety,” said Joe Moran, fire marshal for the College. “I know that when we confiscate illegal appliances or candles they always comment that it would never cause a fire. When we tag items in the halls they become very upset because they feel that it is their space to use. My job is very difficult because I’m suppose to identify problems before they occur.”

Dean of the College Peter Murphy acknowledged that the deans office is actively working on improvements to the College’s fire safety program.

“We are working with the fire marshal, the director of Housing and the Campus Safety Committee to come up with some improvements in the fire safety regulations and procedures,” he said. “Fire safety, in my opinion, is one of those areas – like the party policy – that needs constant tending as conditions change. People forget its importance, and ignore things they shouldn’t.”

McEvoy acknowledged the potential for resistance to the plan, saying, “Given that we have a very centralized system here of enforcement, we count on the students essentially to govern themselves and live in the houses well and properly, and that’s the beauty of our system.

McEvoy said, “However, in some ways it is double-edged because when you get into these situations, where this is not really on the forefront of students minds, that they should be keeping things neat, tidy and safe. We need to keep those hallways clear in keeping with the state law.”

“We know this doesn’t win our favor with students and we’d much rather be dealing with them on other things,” he said.

“I know the fire marshal doesn’t want to be fining people, I don’t want to be fining people and I don’t want to have to deal with people as far as why their finds should be rescinded. It puts me in a really difficult position…I just hope students listen and understand why we are doing what we are doing.”

“We don’t want to discover those things after a fire and after deaths, as Seton Hall recently did,” Murphy said. “It is fundamentally important to the health of the community, and fundamentally important that people see it as good for everyone.”