String of campus fires raises safety concerns

Two kitchen fires forced the evacuation of students in Francis Scott Key and Munson halls late last week, the third and fourth fires on campus in the last two weeks.

Residence hall smoke detectors failed in both of last week’s fires, raising questions among students about GW’s fire safety standards.

Thursday’s fire in FSK Hall, which began when an oven mitt mistakenly was stored in the broiler while the oven was in use, went undetected for nearly 30 minutes because no smoke detector sounded.

“God forbid we were sleeping,” said one of the students responsible for the fire in FSK that occurred just after 11 p.m. “We were lucky we were awake. What if we had left and gone out?”

In Munson Hall Friday afternoon, a new toaster oven ignited after its owner neglected to remove a small cardboard insert from inside appliance. The smoke detector in the room never sounded, the room’s residents said., and the fire was discovered by students who smelled smoke.

The residents of the rooms in which the fires ignited asked not to be identified.

The GW Facilities Department, which handles maintenance of the smoke detectors, did not return phone calls seeking comment about the upkeep of the detectors.

Joseph Yohe, manager of GW’s Department of Risk Management and Insurance, said all the GW buildings that are required by code to have fire protection systems have them, including FSK and Munson halls.

The systems are supposed to include working heat and smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and manual pull stations, which are part of GW’s “commitment to fire safety,” Yohe said.

Dan Kaniewski, a supervisor with the GW Emergency Medical Response Group (EMeRG), said smoke detectors should be tested every six months.

“Hopefully (students) will take these evacuations and fire alarms more seriously,” said Bob Ludwig, a public affairs specialist in the Office of University Relations. “These systems are here to protect them.”

“It’s a pretty common thing to have people burning things on the stove. It has happened in the past. As a result, we make sure that every kitchen with a stove is equipped with a fire extinguisher,” Yohe said.

But students involved in FSK’s fire never used the kitchen fire extinguisher. When they realized a fire had begun behind the closed kitchen door, the smoke was already too thick to allow them to reach the extinguisher.

“The smoke was coming out from around the door,” said one resident of the FSK room. “I opened the door and this cloud of smoke came out and stung my eyes.”

University Police Department officials arrived on the scene about ten minutes after the FSK fire was reported, said the resident who made the call. District of Columbia fire department trucks arrived shortly after.

The students involved in the Munson fire discovered it early enough to put out the flames with their kitchen fire extinguisher. They also said the windows could not be opened in the kitchen for ventilation because they were painted shut.

Yohe said GW provides students with instruction on fire safety issues, including kitchen hazards, during required residence hall safety meetings. But the two students responsible for the FSK fire did not attend any such meetings at FSK.

The students responsible for the Munson fire said they were not given fire safety instructions at their hall meeting.

“We didn’t know what to do exactly,” one of the Munson residents said. “I was thinking, `Do you throw water on it? Flour? Is it an electrical fire?’ ”

Ludwig said, however, the University’s Crisis Communication System worked according to plan in all the fires.

“The proper authorities were notified, then the (D.C.) fire department was notified and was on the scene immediately . to make sure no one was exposed to any danger,” he said.

“(UPD, DCFD, and EMeRG) responded very fast. As soon as I left my room I could hear them running up the stairs with their radios,” the Munson resident said. “It’s good to know you can call and they’re able to respond quickly.”

Yohe said he was unaware Friday afternoon that a fire had occurred the night before in FSK.

“Obviously we are looking into these fires to find out exactly what the cause is and taking appropriate corrective actions,” Yohe said.

The four students involved in last week’s fires said GW needs to improve maintenance of smoke detectors and education on fire safety.

“(GW) should have every resident check their smoke detector the first day they move in,” said one of the students. “They could do this as a (prerequisite) to getting their mail key (for example).”

The fires that occurred in Bell Hall and the anthropology department two weeks ago were caused by electrical malfunctions and remain under investigation, GW officials said.

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