Shaw University students learn early lesson about dorm fire safety

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RALEIGH - More than 400 new students and their resident advisers gathered on the lawn of Shaw University late Tuesday morning to learn an early semester lesson about dormitory room fire safety and the benefits of having a sprinkler system.

The students, mostly freshmen who had just moved into nearby Fleming Kee Living and Learning Center, watched as two upperclassmen, Destini Dixon and Malek Hewston, sat inside makeshift dorm rooms that were about to go up in flames.

Hewston, a junior music major, sat on the edge of his twin bed while a guest walked in and lit a fire in his trashcan. As smoke from the trashcan rose to the ceiling, a smoke detector went off and Hewston fled the room as flames spread to the bed.

Less than a minute later, the fire spewed thick black smoke. Three minutes later, the room was fully consumed by a roaring fire.

Firefighters standing by hosed the fire out in less than 30 seconds. The students applauded.

"That was really amazing," said Jaslyn Hunter, a 19-year-old freshman sociology major from Charlotte. "I'm ready for the next one."

Dixon, a senior recreation management major, reclining on her dorm bed reading a book, was ready, too. But the damage caused by the fire lit in her trashcan was not nearly as dramatic.

The blaze in Dixon's room started at 11:22 a.m. The smoke detector went off and she fled just before a sprinkler system kicked in. The fire was extinguished by 11:24 a.m. and had caused only minimal damage, mostly to the trashcan.

The effectiveness of the sprinkler system was readily apparent. Shaw University spokeswoman Odessa Hines said two dormitories on campus; Fleming Kee and Dimple Newsome, were retro-fitted with sprinkler systems, while two other dormitories on Person Street were equipped with sprinklers when they were built in the 1990s.

Sprinkler systems are required for college dormitories in North Carolina, but only for those built since 2006, said Marni Schribman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance, which includes the Office of State Fire Marshal.

Shaw University, in downtown Raleigh, has not had a major fire in recent memory. Still, university administrators thought it was important for new students to understand what to do in the event of a campus fire.

"We haven't had an actual fire, but that does not mean that it couldn't happen," Hines said.

Hines said that was especially important with an incoming class of about 700 students this fall, 94 percent of whom live on campus.

Eleven North Carolina college students have died in fires in on-campus and off-campus housing since 2000, according to the state fire marshal's office.

Of the 162 students who have died in college fires nationwide since 2000, four out of five deaths occurred in off-campus housing. In late 2005, two N.C. State University students - Cody Pilkington, 19, of Grifton and Brandon "Moose" Davis, 22, of High Point - died when the three-story duplex where they lived off Oberlin Road erupted into fire caused by a lit cigarette left on a sofa. "Today's demonstration shows the staggering reality of how quickly a fire can change - or even end - lives," insurance commissioner Wayne Goodwin said in a statement.

Moments before Tuesday's demonstration, Shaw University President Dorothy Cowser Yancy told students that when she served as president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, a student started a fire in a campus storage room. Yancy said a major incident was averted when the fire was caught by students.

"Keep your eyes and ears open," she said.

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