SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Twenty years after a fire at Seton Hall University’s Boland Hall claimed three people’s lives and injured more than 50 others, survivors of the fire and U.S. Reps. Bill Pascrell and Donald Payne Jr. reintroduced the Campus Fire Safety Education Act at SHU. This bill would create a new grant program for colleges and universities and is aimed at increasing fire-safety awareness among college students. Pascrell introduced the act after the fire in 2000, and he and Payne reintroduced it in 2017. It has not yet been passed.
The Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act, which was also introduced by Pascrell following the fire in 2000, went into effect in 2008 as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act. It requires colleges and universities to provide prospective and current students with fire safety information on campuses.
“Twenty years ago, our community came together,” Pascrell said at the press conference on Jan. 17. “It honored the lives lost and vowed to make change. This bill would allow fire safety grants to expand education.”
Pascrell pointed out that colleges receiving a grant through the bill would be able to use it to expand fire safety education and preventative measures in off-campus housing, such as fraternity and sorority houses, as well.
“We don’t care where our students live; we just want them to be safe,” Pascrell, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, said. He also pointed out that many states, mostly in the South, have been slow to update their fire-safety education. The Campus Fire Safety Education Act would encourage them to do so.
Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, both survivors of the SHU fire, spoke at the event. In the last 20 years, they have spoken at high schools and colleges around the state and country advocating for fire safety.
“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through that night,” Llanos said.
Simons said the bill would help prevent such a tragedy from happening again and pointed out that his 17-year-old son is now applying to colleges.
“I’m afraid that some of his friends are applying to colleges who don’t have sprinklers,” he said.
In an interview with the News-Record at the event, Simons said he and Llanos wanted to use their experience to tell students what to do in the event of a fire.
“We also want to make sure they know that if you have a tragedy, you can overcome it,” he said, pointing out the preventative measures that must be taken in the meantime. “What happened at Seton Hall opened up the eyes of a lot of people. It’s going to happen again. Nobody is invincible, and someone could be hurt.”
South Orange Fire Chief Daniel Sullivan, who was one of the firefighters who responded to the Boland Hall fire in 2000, was also at the press conference. A native of South Orange who attended Seton Hall Prep, Sullivan praised the changes made at SHU, saying it’s now one of the most fire-safe campuses in the country.
“It’s so important that we think about accountability in the dorms,” he said. “It takes a lot of people, and Seton Hall is our No. 1 priority. The congressmen mentioned off-campus housing: That’s a concern also. Any place a student lays their head in New Jersey, the legislation requires a sprinkler there protecting them.”
Other members of the SOFD were at the press conference as well, in addition to New Jersey State Fire Marshal Rich Mikutsky and New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association President Ed Donnelly. Several firefighters from the New Brunswick Fire Department, which responds to emergency calls on the campus of Rutgers University, were also in attendance.
Payne is chairman of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications and, in an interview with the News-Record at the event, he said fire safety and fire preparedness belong to that emergency category.
“It’s an important piece of legislation,” Payne said. “Being the father of triplets in college now, this is something I hadn’t thought of until recently. It’s important to the safety of our community.”
He said the national bill would ensure that colleges across the country, even in states that don’t have fire safety laws specific to universities, would have access to funding for prevention and education.
“We’re not doing it to harm any jurisdiction,” Payne said. “We want to keep them from being harmed. We’ve been through it; we know what it’s like. We don’t want them to go through it, too. What is more important than making sure our children are kept safe?”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic