Thurston no safer a year after fire

More than a year after a two-alarm fire severely burned a GW student on Thurston Hall’s ninth floor, administrators said that despite initiatives to improve safety in residence halls, Thurston Hall is still no safer than it was a year ago.

At about 5 a.m. on the morning of March 22, 2005, then-freshman Kevin McLaughlin was taken to the GW Hospital in “very bad condition” after a fire started in his room from an electric grill. McLaughlin is no longer enrolled at GW.

Last year, McLaughlin’s father, Timothy McLaughlin, criticized the University after his son’s dorm room fire was not extinguished by a hallway sprinkler system in Thurston. Newer dorms, such as Ivory Tower and New Hall, have sprinklers in each individual room. Thurston only has hall sprinklers because it was built well before city regulations required sprinklers in each room.

Despite small renovations to Thurston Hall, Executive Vice President and Treasurer of the University Louis Katz said last month that the building is “equally as safe” today compared to when the fire broke out more than a year ago. Katz acknowledged that a building with a sprinkler system in the rooms is the best possible scenario.

“Every year we evaluate life safety systems of all the buildings, especially residence halls, because that is where students are sleeping,” Katz said. “We go through all of our buildings and we prioritize based on usage and age of the building.”

Nancy Haaga, director of Auxiliary and Institutional Services, said the University is reviewing a plan to install an updated sprinkler system in Thurston, but no plans for the renovation have been finalized.

Following a University evaluation of fire safety in the dorm launched after the blaze, coupled with the University’s annual evaluations of GW dorms, the University took two steps to make dorms across campus safer, Katz said.

One initiative was increased monitoring of GW residence halls through the stricter enforcement of health and safety inspections, which seize items deemed “clearly unsafe.”

Katz said a second step to improve safety was the installation of a no-smoking policy in all GW dorms last fall. Thurston’s ninth floor, where the fire occurred, used to be the building’s smoking floor, though fire officials did not blame the fire on cigarettes.

Over the summer the University updated the sprinkler system in the West End, and over March’s undergraduate spring break, new tread mats were installed in Thurston Hall following a complaint that the stairwells and fire exits were slippery when the hallway sprinklers were activated.

The University will continue its process of updating residence halls; this summer The Dakota will receive a new sprinkler system.

“The University has allocated one million dollars annually for residence hall fire and life safety projects through fiscal year 2009, beginning last year,” Katz wrote in a prepared response. “Thus, over the next four years, a number of projects will be undertaken to upgrade fire and life safety systems in residence halls.”

-Brandon Butler contributed to this report.

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