On Aug. 26, students received an email notifying them of a change in fire safety regulations that would affect several popular social spaces on campus. Dean of Students Allen Hart wrote in the email that, following a directive from the Fire Chief for the town of Amherst, “spaces which hold 100 or more people cannot be used unless they have a sprinkler system.” Based on regulations issued by the State Fire Marshal, the decision means that events and parties can no longer be held in the basements of Crossett, Davis and Stone Dormitories.
Hart assured students that the Dean of Students Office would see to it “that appropriate space is available for registered parties,” emphasizing that the fire code restrictions are a matter of legality and safety, and that the “policy will be strictly enforced by campus police.”
The event that sparked these state-wide regulations occurred at the Station Night Club in Rhode Island on Feb. 20, 2003, when the performing band’s pyrotechnic display set off a fire that quickly spread throughout the club. With 462 people packed into a building estimated to have a capacity for around 300 and lacking any sort of sprinkler system, the fire and resulting stampede claimed the lives of 100 people and injured another 300.
The Massachusetts Legislature and the Commonwealth’s Board of Fire Prevention Regulations enhanced fire codes in response to this tragic incident. As of Jun. 1, 2011, it is required by law that automatic sprinklers be installed in assembly places with a 100-person capacity or greater. Furthermore, “every nightclub, dance hall, discotheque or bar, with an occupant load or 100 persons or more shall designate one crowd manager, for every 250 occupants.” A nightclub, dancehall, discotheque or bar is defined as “a. any facility…which is principally designed or used as a nightclub, dance hall, discothque or bar; or b. any facility that features entertainment by live band or recorded music generating above normal sound levels and has a specific area designated for dancing.”
According to Director of Facilities Jim Brassord, “there was a lot of interpretation that was left open to local authorities” even after the new regulations were passed earlier this year. The responsibility seems to fall with local authorities to require sprinkler systems for large party spaces.
“To get up to code, you have to sprinkler the entire building,” said Hart. He affirmed that the College is “looking into that,” but the process being one that requires extensive renovation, “the likelihood of the sprinklers being added to [Crossett, Stone and Davis] this academic year is not good.”
Hart stated that the issue of crowd managers, on the other hand, can be overcome “easily.”
With the three social dorms’ basements now unavailable for parties and events, the College points students to alternative spaces, including: Seelye, Hitchcock, Hamilton and Morris Pratt Dormitories, Drew House, Keefe Campus Center, O’Connor Commons, Alumni Gym and outdoor locations on campus. Party guidelines that existed in the past, requiring students to register parties with the Dean of Students Office and residents of the building must give permission to those students seeking to hold a party in their common space.
Those guidelines, however, have not always been followed in the past. Association of Amherst Students (AAS) President Romen Borsellino ’12 confirmed that fewer than 40 parties were registered during the 2010-2011 academic year. But Alex Propp ’13, who was the Resident Counselor (RC) of Stone last year, estimated that “there was some sort of function” happening in the socials every weekend, though most were smaller gatherings of 20 to 30 people.
“The intent to keep people safe is obviously a good cause,” said Propp, who is working as the RC of Davis this year. “The problem is that [the new regulation] forecloses smaller gatherings from happening in those spaces. It also poses problems for the campus because it means a lot of those gatherings are going to happen in newer, nicer dorms where they’re going to cause significant amounts of damage.”
Propp is also concerned that RC’s will not be able to hold dorm programming in the affected spaces of Crossett, Davis and Stone. Other options in the socials remain limited, due to the buildings’ suite style format.
Problematic for RC’s or not, however, “this is the law and we have to abide by it,” said Hart. “We need to think creatively about what this means for the social life on campus, and how we either want to look for different kinds of spaces or reconfigure what the social life looks like.”
The AAS will be holding a town hall meeting in the Cole Assembly Room of Converse Hall on Thurs., Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the new fire safety regulations. Hart, Assistant Dean of Students Hannah Fatemi and Environmental Health and Safety Manager Rick Mears will be present to answer students’ questions.