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When Dorms Get Too Warm

College students are many things, but cautious isn’t usually one of them. And when the emotional tinder swirling in young adults mixes with physical tinder, such as paper and cheap furniture, in population-dense dorms, the combination can be highly combustible. That may be one of the reasons why about 1,300 fires occur in U.S. college and university dormitories every year. Unfortunately, in most dorm fires, no automatic sprinkler system is there to douse the flames.

As part of a U.S. Fire Administration initiative to improve fire safety in college housing, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted fire experiments in abandoned dorm rooms in Arkansas.

One test involved a room with automatic sprinklers. A second test involved a fire in a room with little ventilation and no sprinklers. In a third test, a fire was set in an unsprinklered room with some ventilation. All three rooms had smoke alarms.

A DVD issued by NIST depicts the experiments in both video and report form. In the room with sprinklers, the fire is doused within three minutes, and at no time does the temperature in either the room or adjoining corridor exceed 120 degrees Celsius, the point at which temperature becomes “untenable”—that is, beyond which unprotected human skin will quickly burn and sense pain.

In the unventilated room without sprinklers, this threshold was exceeded not only in the room itself, but as far as 75 feet down the adjacent corridor within six minutes of the start of the fire. The ventilated room fared even worse: at six minutes after ignition, the temperature exceeded 120 degrees more than 100 feet down the corridor.