Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Peter Mulvihill, Epsilon/Worcester Polytechnic Institute, ’78. Pete is the chapter advisor for our Beta Phi chapter at Nevada. He is currently serving as the Nevada State Fire Marshal. We are grateful for Pete’s expertise and enthusiasm to write a five-part blog series about fire safety. This is a relevant reminder about the very real dangers of fires in fraternity houses. Thank you, Pete, for helping to protect our brothers.
Of all the fire risks in fraternity houses, fires caused by electrical and lighting equipment result in the largest overall property damage on an annual basis. Similar to fires caused by heating equipment, the number of fires caused by electrical equipment is small, representing only 60 of the 3,810 fires annually in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and barracks. However, they account for 27 percent of all fire property damage (over $2 million dollars) and approximately 10 percent of injuries.
Why to electrical fires cause so much damage?
- Overheated electrical wiring is often located out of sight – inside walls, in attics or in crawlspaces. These fires can grow undetected and are often out of reach of automatic sprinkler systems.
- Fires started by electrical failures continue with energized circuits feeding the overheated wiring.
- Combustible items, such as decorations or fabric, can be easily ignited if the circuit breaker fails and does not trip. A failed circuit breaker can cause wires to arc and create flame.
Here are a few tips to help keep your chapter house safe from electrical hazards:
- Repeated resetting of tripped circuit breakers won’t make the problem go away. Circuit breakers that trip more than once are probably not a faulty breaker, but an overloaded circuit. Houses designed as late as the 1980’s did not anticipate the electrical loads common in today’s college environment. A single desk lamp and typewriter has given way to computers, printers, phone chargers, game consoles, a small refrigerator and any number of devices. Survey your electrical demand and make adjustments as needed. Dividing demand by adding new circuits should only be done by a licensed electrician using permanent wiring from a main electric panel with adequate spare capacity.
- Beware of extension cords! Use only fused power strips when you absolutely, positively have to plug more than two devices into that duplex outlet. Also, never “daisy-chain” power strips, one after another, as the ground fault circuit protection built into a power strip’s function can be compromised. There are legal and legitimate uses for extension cords, but they require proper wire gauge and only a single plug receptacle and cannot be a replacement for installation of permanent wiring. Consult your local electrician, campus safety professional or fire department for those times when an extension cord can be safely used.
- Throw those multiple plug adapters away! Clark Griswold used them to feed his Christmas lights, and look what happened to him. They are typically of light construction and provide no local overload protection such as a power strip. Listed and approved multi-plug adapters that include overload, ground fault and surge protection are available and can expand your duplex outlet to serve five or six devices, provided the aggregate electrical demand is still reasonable.
- Light bulbs get hot. Lamp shades, fabric and other decorations in contact with incandescent or halogen bulbs can ignite. Fluorescent ballasts also produce heat and may be found either built into a lamp fixture or incorporated in the base of a compact fluorescent bulb. Keep light fixtures clean with adequate air circulation. If discolored or melted lamp globes, shades or fixtures are discovered, discontinue use until repaired or replaced.
- Cords don’t make good padding for carpets. Appliance, light or power strip cords don’t belong under carpets. Dirt and traffic can wear and abrade the cord causing shorts and arcing. Heat build-up from electrical resistancein the cord, particularly in small wire gauges, also can’t dissipate under a carpet and have caused fires.
- Frayed or exposed conductors. This is a fire waiting to happen. Repair or replace any wiring, appliance cord or device connection prior to any additional use. Wrapping the damaged area with electrical tape does not repair the damaged conductors which may now be generating more heat due to increased resistance.
If you find yourself jiggling that stack of plugs in order to get the roof-top holiday lights on, make sure it’s really the glow from Rudolph’s nose that you see and not the chapter house roof on fire.
In our next article, we will discuss planning for all things “fire.”
Statistics are quoted from “Structure Fires in Dormitories, Fraternities, Sororities and Barracks,” by Richard Campbell, August 2013, published by the National Fire Protection Association. The complete report can be found on their website, www.nfpa.org under research reports, or at this link: http://www.nfpa.org/~/media/Files/Research/NFPA%20reports/Occupancies/osdorms.pdf
Additional safety tips can be found in the Resource Guide for the Vice President of Health and Safety and at www.nfpa.org/campussafety.