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Campus fire department keeps students safe

Emma Russ | Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In 1879, a devastating fire destroyed Notre Dame’s Main Building, alerting the administration to the need for greater fire safety measures. More than a century later, the University maintains constant vigilance through the Notre Dame Fire Department (NDFD).

NDFD handles all of the University’s fire safety-related needs, and its responsibilities are broader than most municipal fire departments, Interim Fire Chief Timothy Hoeppner said.

“These duties include building inspections, maintenance, testing of all fire protection systems and public education,” he said. “At the beginning of each school year we hold classes to instruct rectors and hall staff in the proper use of extinguishers. We also perform fire drills in all residence halls and some classroom buildings.”

Hoeppner stressed prevention as a crucial aspect of fire safety. Notre Dame firefighters are committed not only to fighting fires as they arise, but also to preventing dangerous situations from ever occurring, he said.

“NDFD is responsible for minimizing the possibility of fires by promoting fire safety wherever possible,” he said. “To do so, we perform annual fire code and [Occupational Safety and Health Administration} safety inspections, design reviews for building and remodeling projects and advise campus user groups on fire code compliance and general safety issues.”

Despite the fire department’s best efforts, fires and other emergencies do occur on the Notre Dame campus. The combined weekly average of fires, emergency medical calls and rescue reports at Notre Dame is three-and-a-half calls per day, Hoeppner said.

“Medical emergencies constitute the majority of NDFD’s responses, with over half of the department’s calls dealing with the ill and injured in our coverage area,” he said.

Fire-related issues constitute the remainder of emergency reports, which constitute about one third of all calls, Hoeppner said.

“The most common are cooking issues caused by students using excessive amounts of cooking oil and not closely monitoring their cooking, which can lead to an overheating situation,” he said. “This type of fire can be easily prevented by simply paying careful attention to any cooking activity and making sure that cooking surfaces are clean before use.”

Fire drills, medical transport and cooking fire extinguishment are all a far cry from the services provided by the University’s first fire prevention organization, established in 1846. The company was staffed by a group of volunteer Holy Cross brothers.

“Their main duties were listed in 1846 as ‘to procure buckets, axes and other tools during a fire,'” Hoeppner said. “Their ‘fire engine’ was a piece of pumping equipment that was located in a shed adjacent to the campus dog kennel.”

While the aforementioned Main Building disaster resulted in increased attention to fire safety, the department did not come into its current form until decades later.

“In 1896, a central firehouse was built with two bays to hold the hose carts and a tower was later added to hang [a] wet hose,” he said. “By 1900, the Notre Dame Scholastic noted that the University had the ‘best fire protection in America,’ and ‘could deliver over 2,000 gallons of water per minute within five minutes of the alarm.'”

Further expansion occurred after the St. Edward’s Hall fire in 1980, as the first professional firefighters were hired.

“This marked the beginning of the modern NDFD,” Hoeppner said. “We continue to work closely to promote the safety of our students, faculty and staff.”

Contact Emma Russ at eruss@nd.edu