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Barb Spalding, associate director of Campus Fire Safety, teaches Annalisa Kelly '08 how to use a fire extinguisher in a set-up drill. Spalding hopes to teach all students on campus how to use the devices.
 
Posted 04.01.06

Fire Specialist Focuses on Safety, Preventive Measures, Education

Q: Barb, how did you work your way up to the associate director of Campus Fire Safety?

A: I started in November 2003, as a consultant, hired by Joyce Topshe, the assistant vice president of facilities to do a fire/life safety study of the undergraduate residences. In April 2004 I was hired as a fulltime employee as associate director, project manager in Construction Services. When Physical Plant reorganized in the summer of 2005, my title changed to associate director of Campus Fire Safety.

Q: This is a new position, correct?

A: It was the Physical Plant reorganization that prompted the new position. We all realized that there are significant fire and life safety issues at Wesleyan, especially in our housing, and there wasn’t a single point person or department to address all the issues.

Q: What is your goal as a campus fire safety specialist?

A: My goal is to educate as many people as possible in the things we can all do to make our environment as safe as possible. Have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at home. Practice what to do in the event of an emergency. Know as much as you can about the building systems or features that are intended to keep you safe. And pay attention wherever you are to your environment and ways for you and yours to be safe.

Q: What are you working on lately?

A: I started with a study in 2003, identifying projects that would increase the fire safety for students in undergrad housing. We got the Trustees approval last May for the Foss Hill fire sprinkler/fire alarm project as well as for a project to install fire sprinkler systems in all the wood frame and Program Housing with five beds or more. That is 46 wood frame houses and 11 program houses that didn’t have fire sprinkler systems and are in long-term locations. So I am managing those installations – this summer eight houses are getting new fire sprinkler systems as part of Major Maintenance projects, and seven others as part of the undergrad fire sprinkler project. The rest will be covered over the next three summers.

Q: What else have you worked on?

A: I managed a project to install carbon monoxide detectors in undergrad residences that use oil or gas fuel for heat. I wrote new specifications for installations of fire alarm and fire sprinkler systems on campus. I coordinated fire drills in student housing and for fire/life safety training for the Res Life staff. I have taken over the responsibility for I am working on a “Better Living” program for students in program houses and wood frames to introduce them to their house – here is the thermostat, here is the water shut-off for the toilet, here is a smoke detector, CO detector, sprinkler. I am also working on a Building Ambassador program for administrative and academic buildings to help occupants familiarize themselves with the fire/life safety issues in their workplaces. I also am updating a building database that includes all buildings on campus and has information about the type of fire alarm and fire sprinkler systems, as well as building square footage, date and type of construction, occupancy, etc. We hope to use this data, and an updated campus map with software to have an intelligent campus map for everyone to use.

Q: Where did you acquire your knowledge on fire safety?

A: After 10 years of contracting, I applied for a job as a construction project manager at Northern Arizona University, where I had completed several jobs as a subcontractor. One of my biggest projects was to develop an inspection, test and repair program for the two dozen or so fire sprinkler systems in the residential buildings on campus. That led to a study of the fire alarm systems. Since Northern Arizona was a state institution, they did not fall under the jurisdiction of the local fire authorities and had serious lapses in the inspection, testing and maintenance of their systems. I worked with the campus fire marshal, the state fire marshal, the local fire department and other professionals and contractors to repair, replace and bring up to code the fire life safety systems on campus. I also attended classes at Arizona and received my degree in business and construction management.

Q: What laws or guidelines in fire safety must Wesleyan abide by?

A: We have to meet all local, state and federal laws pertaining to new and existing buildings. The state just adopted a bunch of new codes, some of which pertain to new buildings and construction and some pertain to existing buildings and renovation and use. I actually really like to study codes but this revision is really a challenge just to figure out which code applies to our specific cases. Considering we have a higher percentage of 25-plus year old buildings than our peer institutions, we have done an excellent job of keeping the buildings safe for people to live and work in.

Q: Environmental Health & Safety is in the process of holding fire drills in all buildings on campus. What is the purpose of these drills?

A: This is the next step in my safe buildings campaign. It is one thing to make the building safe, but there is always the people variable. We will be doing fire drills in all admin and academic buildings on campus, because generally people do not know how to respond during a fire alarm evacuation. If they remember what they learned in kindergarten, they will leave the building when they hear the bells. But as adults, most people forget that that is actually the law, not just a good idea. We will also be doing fire extinguisher training for anyone interested.

Q: If there is a fire, can you explain how employees should evacuate a smoky building?

A: Stay calm. If there is an alarm activation and you are in a room with the door closed, feel the door or handle first to see if it is warm, before opening the door. If there is smoke in the corridor, stay low to the floor where there is more air and head directly to an exit. If there is too much smoke, close the door to the room that you are in, but a towel or something at the bottom of the door to seal it, call 911 or x3333 to let someone know where you are. Open a window and signal to someone outside also. The Fire Department is very close to campus and will be on scene within five minutes max.

Q: Who else works on fire safety issues or environmental health and safety issues?

A: I report to Joyce Topshe and go over everything with her. I share an office with Bill Nelligan, associate director of Environmental Health and Safety and Chris Cruz, safety specialist, and Ricky Howard, EH&S project manager. I also work very closely with Residential Life staff.

Q: What are the biggest challenges your job poses?

A: How to balance safety with practicality. It defeats the mission of creating a safe campus, if procedures that are put in place are too restrictive and cumbersome. Then people are not only not being safe, but usually doing something really stupid to avoid doing the right thing. My goal is to have effective rules.

Q: Can you give an example of this?

A: For instance, string lights or “Christmas lights” used to be on the prohibited items list, but everyone had them and trying to hide them caused more of a problem. They are now allowed as long as they are plugged directly into the wall, since extension cords are still prohibited. There are still students who don’t get it that candles and incense cause fires and that is why they are prohibited. And smoking really isn’t allowed in any university buildings.

Fore information on fire safety can be found at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/firesafety.
 

By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection editor