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    Posted January 31, 2012 by

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    Campus Fire Provides Teachable Moment


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     mediaman heard about a fire in a dorm on Sunday on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus and had Chancellor Joe Gow to walk him through the aftermath of the fire. The chancellor told him, 'I hope everyone who sees what happened here will take fire safety all the more seriously and take a moment to think about how they'll get out of a building when a fire alarm sounds.'
    - zdan, CNN iReport producer

    La Crosse, WI In residence halls and off campus apartments, a fire can cause intensive damage, injury, and death. It can happen at any time or any day without warning. In the early hours of January 29th, a fire broke out in a residence hall basement at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Fortunately, smoke alarms were in working order and promptly warned students to promptly evacuate Drake Hall at 4:25am Sunday morning. Hundreds of students left the building with no reported injuries, but there was extensive water and smoke damage.

    Chancellor Joe Gow provided a private tour of the fire’s aftermath to emphasize the importance of fire safety and having a quick and accurate campus response. Gow believes this is a critical message to other universities and colleges nationwide.

    As we headed into the basement an intense strong charcoal smell permeated the air, right through our face masks. The walls were stained with soot with long lines of watermarks covering the wall. The light was stark and eerie and without the occasionally glass breaking beneath of shoes, the silence was deafening. Just hours earlier, the scene was filled with a raging fire, smoke, and over twenty fire fighters rushing to put out the blaze.

    Gow commented, “When I look at this devastation you realize just how horrific fire is, and how very fortunate we were that no one was injured or lost in the fire. Thankfully, everyone got out of the building as soon as the fire alarms sounded.”

    Where the fire likely started, there was a debris field of melted plastic fabric, charred sofa springs, glass, and sharp metal framing. You could almost imagine students sitting on the sofas the night before. In a vending machine you could still see Fritos and M&M’s, and in a nearby Pepsi machine an orange soda had made its way down the chute, framed by the scorched and melted side panels.

    As Gow surveyed the wreckage he said, “This incident teaches us how critical it is to always evacuate a building when a fire alarm sounds, even if we're unsure whether there is an actual fire.” As we continued through the wreckage and darkened hallways, it was a sobering, “teachable moment” of what damage a fire can inflict in a matter of minutes.

    The Chancellor has had firsthand experiences with fire. In his previous position as interim Chancellor at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska, a 19 year old student was killed in a fraternity house fire. It did not have sprinklers. Emotionally moved by the tragedy, later, Gow donated his entire $24,000 salary bonus towards a program to replace university housing sprinklers.

    In November 2007, a UW-La Crosse theater student while on vacation in Madison was killed in a house fire. In that case, there were no smoking alarms in the apartment. Two years later the City of Madison Common Council unanimously passed the “Peter Talen Ordinance” in memory of the student who died. The ordinance requires landlords and homeowners to install smoke alarms in every bedroom and floor of a home. Under the ordinance, tenants and landlords must install an alarm that’s wired and has a non-rechargeable or rechargeable battery, or a smoke alarm that's non-removable and has a 10-year lithium battery. Gow supported an award winning documentary entitled, “Peter’s Story” to illustrate the importance of smoke alarms, particularly for student housing.

    As Gow left the scene, he spoke softly in a sober tone, “I hope everyone who sees what happened here will take fire safety all the more seriously and take a moment to think about how they'll get out of a building when a fire alarm sounds.” In this case, the lives of students were saved. Will universities and colleges throughout the nation be equally prepared? The example left at UW-La Crosse might be that one teachable moment that could save lives.
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