Twenty years after the Boland Hall Fire, which took the lives of three Seton Hall freshmen, Aaron Karol, John Giunta and Frank Caltabilota, New Jersey’s state representatives continue to advocate for fire safety on college campuses.
On Jan. 17, Rep. Bill Pascrell and Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. visited Bethany Hall where they commemorated the fateful event by introducing the Campus Fire Safety Education Act. The remembrance included remarks from the congressmen, survivors and state safety personnel.
Sen. Robert Menendez is another co-sponsor on the bill along with Pascrell and Payne, but he was unable to attend the commemoration.
As chairman of the subcommittee on emergency, preparedness, response and recovery for the US House of Representatives, Payne said he is always looking for ways to prepare communities for potential emergency situations.
“We knew what happened at Boland Hall could happen anywhere and if such a fire could happen in the future, we know we can be prepared for it,” Payne said.
The act would provide a new competitive Campus Fire Safety Education Grant program at institutions of higher education, which aims to increase fire safety awareness. Additionally, according to Pascrell’s press release, the grant program “will allow institutions of higher education to receive funding to initiate, expand, or improve a fire safety education program on their campus.”
Schools may apply individually or in conjunction with a nonprofit fire safety organization or a public safety department. Additionally, a university’s Greek Life chapter may apply for a grant.
“A high proportion of student fires happen off-campus. We don’t care where students live. We want them to be safe,” Pascrell said.
Pascrell said that grant recipients will be encouraged to use these funds to educate their students living both on and off-campus.
In 2008, the late senator Frank Lautenberg and Pascrell passed the Campus Fire Safety Act which requires colleges throughout the nation to provide prospective and current students with fire safety information on campus. Due to the law, colleges must publicly publish their information regarding fire safety, according to Pascrell.
“Your parents and your guardians have a right to know that they are going to send you all to a school where fire safety is going to protect you and protect your life,” Pascrell said.
During Pascrell’s remarks, he cited a statistic which claimed that at the time of the fire the average number of people killed on campus throughout the nation was between 17-22. Presently, the average has been reduced to 3-4.
Boland Hall Fire survivors Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons spoke at the event and discussed their present-day activism. Llanos said after the fire, he and Simons spearhead a program called After the Fire which educates young adults across the country about fire safety.
“This is a passion of ours to educate and inspire as many students as possible. In New Jersey we speak in 90 high schools alone and many universities across the country.”
Llanos said he may never know how many students they will affect, “but if we reach one, we have done our job.”
Following Llanos’ remarks, Simon reflected on the efforts of first responders who saved many lives from Boland Hall. Simon said that he shares his journey in order to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.
“It’s not an easy task to go out and share one of the most troubling events of your life, but we realized that if people hear our stories, especially young adults who think they are invincible, that if they hear our journeys, we say look it can happen to anyone, Simon said.”
South Orange Fire Chief Daniel Sullivan explained how Seton Hall is “the most fire-safe campus in the country.” Also, as a first responder on Jan. 19, 2000, Sullivan elaborated that after the fire, Seton Hall was proactive in advancing a fire-safe campus. According to Sullivan, the University brought in experts, risk management companies and identified vulnerable spots on campus. The University abides by the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code of New Jersey (UFC) and Sullivan explained how Seton Hall goes beyond these standards.
“Seton Hall to their credit they go 4 to 5 times past [the code’s standards]. The [University] is quadruple redundant in terms of the devices that alert people to a fire or smoke condition in a building. In terms of dormitories, [Seton Hall] is the strongest around.”
Reflecting on the day of the tragedy, Sullivan explained how the weather was similar to that of the day of the commemoration: cold with light snow. On that day, the South Orange Fire Department received a phone call claiming that there was a dormitory fire, which according to Sullivan is the “highest priority,” since the fire department may need to rescue hundreds of students. Additionally, the fire occurred after Seton Hall basketball defeated St. John’s University and after which many students were up late and riled up.
As reported by abc7ny.com, the catalyst for the fire remained a mystery until two students came forward and said they set a banner from a lounge on fire.
State Fire Marshal Richard Mikutsky discussed the Dormitory Fire Safety Act which was a response to the Boland Hall Fire. The act requires that wherever a student lays their head at night must be protected by a fire-deterrent sprinkler. According to Mikutsky, 5 months after the event, the bill was signed into law by Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
“As parents the last thing we want to worry about when we send our kids away from home for the first time to school is their safety, health and welfare,” Mikutsky said.
Mikutsky further explained how the Dormitory Fire Safety Act was the first fire-safety sprinkler law passed in the nation. He said that every school in New Jersey is covered by the law and the state has achieved 100% compliance with the legislation.
Said Mitkutsky: “As parents the last thing we want to worry about when we send our kids away from home for the first time to school is their safety, health and welfare.”
Thomas Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.