Thurston fire leads to review of hall’s safety

More than three months after a fire charred a ninth-floor room in Thurston Hall and left a freshman badly burned, the University is still evaluating a response to ensure safety in the building.

Sophomore Kevin McLaughlin awoke early March 22 to a fire engulfing his room. Hundreds of students packed the stairways and scrambled out of the building shortly before 5 a.m. following an alarm.

Amid questions about the effectiveness of Thurston’s sprinkler systems and the fact that the fire was first identified by a Secret Service officer outside the building, the University put together a panel to evaluate GW’s fire safety protocols.

“The University established a working group of administrators from a broad range of area responsibilities to review the incident and the University’s response,” said Matt Nehmer, assistant director of media relations. “We expect the working group to complete its review by the end of the summer, and any necessary changes identified as a result of that review will be implemented.”

The group has representatives from the general counsel’s office, Student and Academic Support Services and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Louis Katz’s office, among others.

McLaughlin, whose sheets caused the blaze after contacting an electric grill, was moved out of an intensive care unit at the Washington Burn Center in late April. His relatives said he hopes he returns to school in the fall.

McLaughlin’s father, Timothy McLaughlin, criticized the University after his son’s dorm room fire was not contained by a hallway sprinkler system in Thurston. Newer dorms, such Ivory Tower and New Hall, have sprinklers in each individual room.

Russell P. Fleming, a fire safety expert with the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said for Thurston residents to be completely safe the sprinkler system must be updated.

“People think that partial systems are better than nothing, but you are really playing Russian roulette,” Fleming said, referring to a game where participants shoot a gun at their heads that may be loaded. “It doesn’t even pretend to protect an individual in the room.”

Fleming said the changes needed to ensure the sprinkler system properly works would be minor since the upgrade only requires an extension of conduits on each floor. Thurston doesn’t have sprinklers in each room because it was built before the city required all apartment buildings of its size to have them in units.

“It doesn’t take that much piping,” Fleming said. “A sprinkler would keep a fire in check and suppress the toxic gasses; it may not completely extinguish it but it could.”

Nehmer would not comment on Thurston’s sprinkler system, saying only that the fire suppression system “worked as intended.” The damage from the March 22 fire was mostly contained to McLaughlin’s room, 913.

Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, said that while GW should update its sprinklers in Thurston, education is the most important step to take after a campus fire.

“Schools should use every moment as an opportunity to teach policies and the reason for the policies,” Comeau said.

He said a key point to teach students is to take all alarms seriously. Some of Thurston’s 1,049 residents did not exit when the first alarms sounded because they thought it was a drill. Students then crammed into the building’s two stairwells to escape smoke in the hallways. Thurston holds fire drills almost every month.

The laziness of a student not responding to an alarm can be fatal, Comeau said, referring to the April death of a student at Southern Adventist College in Tennessee after she did not immediately exit her building.

Comeau also said he was surprised that the blaze was not first detected by a system within the building.

“The University should use it as a wakeup call to see how procedures work,” Comeau said. “This should be an opportunity to evaluate the fire detection and suppression systems.”

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