College students get lessons in fire safety

Scores of students got a realistic taste of the deadly dangers of fire Wednesday on the campus of th

Scores of students got a realistic taste of the deadly dangers of fire Wednesday on the campus of the State University of New York at Cobleskill.

The smoke and flames were created by state and local fire prevention officials to help teach students how to react if a blaze erupts in any of the 10 campus dorms or off-campus apartments.

With the smell of fire extinguisher ingredients and burning furnishings lingering in the nostrils of observers, several students said they learned valuable lessons.

That’s exactly what Steve Ackerknecht, SUNY Cobleskill’s vice president for collegiate life, hoped would happen.

“This is a very eye-opening experience about what can happen in a residence hall … especially at 3 a.m.,” Ackerknecht said.

About 100 students and faculty learned how quickly a fire can spread as they watched a blaze smolder, then erupt to engulf a mock-up dorm room complete with a bed, TV, computer and other typical furnishings.

After only eight minutes, what was first just a bit of smoke turned into a ball of flames before being doused by Cobleskill firefighters assisting in the demonstration.

That brief time was enough for a sleeping student to have succumbed to toxic smoke and 500-degree flames, noted Josh Smith, who narrated the fire lesson for the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control team.

“I was surprised that most of the [plastic] stuff melted,” said freshman Isabel Gonon of New York City after watching the demonstration.

The state team also spent a couple of hours putting groups of students through their special training trailer, which simulates a smoke-filled room and hallway.

State fire protection specialist Greg Comparetta and other team members taught students to first feel the door to the hall for heat with the back of their hand before opening it after a fire alarm.

Students then crawled through dense smoke toward what they knew was an exit, keeping as low as possible for maximum visibility and breathability.

Dozens of students checked out the trailer and crawled through dense theatrical smoke that obscured the exit, just like a real fire.

The smoke was thick enough in the trailer to obscure all visibility and confuse anyone who didn’t crawl along the wall.

At least one student was familiar with the drill.

“I’ve seen people passed out next to their bed at fires,” said sophomore Mark Becker, who is also a member of the East Greenbush Volunteer Fire Department.

At 20, Becker said he’s been involved with firefighting for about five years, starting with membership in East Greenbush Explorer Post 12

Ackerknecht recalled no serious fires at the Cobleskill campus in the 22 years he’s worked there but still vividly remembers a 1979 fire at SUNY Plattsburgh when he was a residence hall director there.

That fire started around 3 a.m. with a smoldering dorm lounge couch, he said. While no injuries resulted, he said the second-floor lounge was heavily damaged.

About 1,600 of SUNY Cobleskill’s 2,500 students live on campus, according to Ackerknecht.

To help teach 79 resident advisers and 10 residence hall directors how to safely evacuate a building, training sessions are held in August, before students arrive.

“We want students to take it very seriously,” Ackerknecht said. “They should always treat it as a real fire when the alarm goes off.”

The campus also provide usual training for local firefighters.

During the summer, the Cobleskill Volunteer Fire Department sometimes trains at the college to familiarize members with the layout of the campus and techniques for fighting multiple-residence fires, said Lt. Aaron France.

The lessons were serious Wednesday, but on a warm, sunny day, free Frisbees and plastic firefighter hats with fire-prevention messages also proved popular with passing students.

Categories: Schenectady County

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