SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — U.S. Reps. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09) and Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ-10) visited Seton Hall University on Friday, Jan. 17, to mark today's 20th anniversary of the fire at Boland Hall on Jan. 19, 2000, and introduce their legislation, the Campus Fire Safety Education Act.
Also speaking at the event were fire survivors Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons, South Orange Fire Chief Daniel Sullivan, New Jersey State Fire Marshall Rich Mikutsky, and New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association President Ed Donnelly.
“I will never forget the tragic fire at Seton Hall. I will always remember how our community came together after the fire to honor the lives lost and demand change,” said Rep. Pascrell, who is co-chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus. “I vowed on that day to do everything possible to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again. With passage of the High Rise Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act and legislation establishing the Campus Fire Safety Education Grant Program, I’m proud that we have kept that vow to the students, educators, and staffs of colleges nationwide. The passage of our new Campus Fire Safety legislation will continue this important work. God bless the survivors and their families.”
“My thoughts and prayers are still with the families who lost loved ones in the Boland Hall fire at Seton Hall University,” said Rep. Payne. “Since that day, I have worked with my New Jersey colleagues to increase fire safety and protect students. I am proud of the Campus Fire Safety Act I cosponsored with Congressman Pascrell and the similar bill Senator Menendez sponsored in the Senate to improve fire safety education and awareness at colleges and universities across the country. We need to make sure we are prepared if a fire like the one in Boland Hall happens again.” During the fire three students — Aaron Karol, Frank Caltabilota, and John Giunta — died, and 56 people, students and first responders, were injured.
The Campus Fire Safety Education Act would create a new competitive Campus Fire Safety Education Grant Program at institutions of higher education that will increase fire safety awareness among college students, help improve their fire training, and save lives. 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 can apply on their own or in collaboration with a nonprofit fire safety organization or public safety department, including fraternities and sororities. Because a high proportion of student fires occur off-campus, schools will be encouraged to use these funds to educate students living both on and off-campus.
In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act became law with provisions from the Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act introduced by Rep. Pascrell and the late-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). This law requires schools to make an annual report to the U.S. Department of Education on fire safety data including the number of campus fires and cause of each fire, the number of injuries related to fires, and policies on smoking, open flames, and portable electrical appliances. Schools responded to this law with real progress, adding sprinkler systems and other lifesaving devices to dormitories and off-campus housing. With this added attention to fire safety, the number of campus fire fatalities has decreased from an average of 17 per year before the Right-to-Know Act was enacted to five per year after.
“Seton Hall is the most fire safe campus in the country,” said South Orange Fire Chief Sullivan, in response to the 2000 fire. And dormitories are not the only places that need fire preparedness, he said. “The congressman 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.” He said he appreciates both congressmen’s efforts. “Every day they try to assist us for grants and college fire safety education.”
Donnelly, representing the FMBA, thanked the congressmen for their support and said that even the best legislation needs to be backed up by having enough firefighters on shift. “We need the boots on the ground,” he said. “Your firefighters here in South Orange saved countless lives that day,” he noted, by getting there within minutes, and with adequate manpower.
Then he took his remarks to local politics. “I would be remiss if I didn’t close by saying that there are talks, and I want everyone in this room to be aware, of possible mergers and shared services in this community,” he said, referring to talks between South Orange and Maplewood about combining the two fire departments — the former being part of the FMBA and the latter not unionized. “And I hope that if those conversations and those talks move in a way that puts public safety in jeopardy at all, then I can count on the folks here today, both elected and from this university to stand with us to make sure that we never jeopardize public safety. We understand at the FMBA the overtaxed situation we have in New Jersey, and we will work with any elected official that wants to looks to form better efficiencies but never ever at the cost of public safety. And without these men and women with boots on the ground, you are giving up public safety every time.”