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Monday, Oct. 20, 10:41 a.m.
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UM official says Estabrooke safe despite lack of sprinkler system

Constructed in 1940 with federal funds, Estabrooke Hall once served as the women’s dormitory at the University of Maine. 

Today, in addition to the cozy, single-occupancy rooms that primarily house upper-classmen, the residence hall is characterized by one other precarious feature — it is without an automatic sprinkler system.

For some, this could mean a new element of danger, especially when most campus-related fires are caused by candles and hot lamps near drapery and garments in the  confined spaces of dorm rooms.

But for those charged with the task of ensuring UMaine’s buildings are in compliance with the law, it’s not yet an issue.

“UMaine has one of the lowest ratings for fire to break out,” said Ryan Urquhart, a UMaine complex fire marshal who has been assigned to the fire safety of Estabrooke Hall. “Estabrooke has always been safe. It always will be.”

When asked if he feels the absence of an automated sprinkler system is an issue, Urquhart said though the building is safe, extra protection is always beneficial.

“If a fire does erupt, then odds are that it’s going to be a total loss,” he said.

It might come as a surprise that Estabrooke is without a sprinkler system in a day and age when building codes require that even the smallest spaces inside walls be sealed with an epoxy fire sealant.

But according to Dan Sturrup, director of Auxiliary Services at UMaine, Estabrooke is in full compliance with the state’s laws.

“All of our residence halls at UMaine are within code,” he said. “They’re all equipped with full alarm systems, exits are marked clearly, and they’re perfectly safe.”

At the beginning of the decade, the Maine State Legislature established a law requiring all dormitories constructed after Jan. 1, 2001, to be equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system. 

For older residence halls, such as Estabrooke, Maine law requires those systems be phased in by Jan. 1, 2013, when sprinkler systems will be mandatory.

At UMaine, which has 18 dormitories, the mandate meant a costly scramble. 

“A sprinkler system for Estabrooke has been planned all along,” Sturrup said. “We’ve had so little time to get this done , it’s all a matter of scheduling.

Both Estabrooke Hall and University Park Family Housing are slated to be retrofitted with such a system in the summer of 2012.

They come last on a laundry list of similar renovations at residence halls across campus in the past 11 years. Knox and Androscoggin halls received sprinkler systems most recently in 2007, and Cumberland and Stodder Halls received them in 2008. 

“It’s just a matter of dealing with the hiccups as they come,” Sturrup said.

UMaine has spent approximately $21 million renovating its dormitories to meet state law and install automatic sprinkler systems, according to Sturrup.

Typically, he said the university has a small window between June and August to complete such large-scale projects. 

Such a renovation is labor intensive, the overtime, retrofitting and cost for materials is “not cheap at all,” he said.

Since 2000, there have been 77 fatal fires at college campuses across the country, according to campusfiresafety.org. Seven of those fires occurred in on-campus buildings or residence halls, claiming nine victims. The rest occurred within three miles of campus. 

According to The Princeton Review’s “Fire Safety Honor Roll,” UMaine ranks high in fire safety, with a score of 85 out of 99.

Urquhart said he conducts fire inspections at Estabrooke twice weekly to ensure exits are unobstructed and fire extinguishers are in place, among other things.

“But I do believe that a sprinkler system is a life saver,” he said.