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Over eight years, Penn will spend $23 million to updae safety systems. Acting in the wake of a disastrous Seton Hall University dormitory fire that killed three students there, Penn's Department of Fire and Occupational Safety recently announced a $23 million plan to install updated fire safety equipment in all on-campus residences. The plan calls for state-of-the-art alarm, sprinkler and detector systems to be installed in residential buildings over an eight-year period and for new public address systems to be integrated into the University's three high-rise college houses. Director of Fire and Occupational Safety Harry Cusick said that while the University's residential buildings currently meet code, changing standards and concerns following Seton Hall's fire have made such improvements a necessity. "With the code, we are where we need to be," Cusick said. "We're always trying to figure out the ways where it's possible to step up our preventative procedures." All of the University's 12 college houses currently feature smoke detectors in all rooms and sprinklers in basements and laundry rooms, Cusick said, though the goal is to bring the buildings beyond the city's minimum fire safety requirements. "We're in compliance and we're also upgrading everything as the [college house] renovations go on," Cusick said. "What we're doing in the high rises and elsewhere is even going beyond compliance." He added that the new high-rise public address system and additional fire safety staff is going to help ease the crucial flow of information to students in the event of a fire alarm. "It was our thought that by having direct communication on every floor, we could get more on-site contact with students," Cusick said. "Having a few additional people on our staff is also going to help out." Dormitory fire safety has been an issue of great discussion ever since a fire struck Seton Hall's Boland Hall in January, killing three students and sending 55 to the hospital. Since then, fire and police officials -- as well as a federal grand jury -- have been working to isolate the factors that contributed to the fire. Three suspicious sofa fires in a third-floor lounge are currently being blamed for the disaster. But Penn officials reviewing the case have expressed concerns regarding the contribution of two particular factors: alcohol and prior false alarms. "One of the things that we saw at Seton Hall -- and it's stunning, particularly as far as colleges go -- is that alcohol was definitely involved," Cusick said. "Alcohol is the catalyst in about 50 percent of fires in the general population, while at colleges it's more than 90 percent." He added that it is often the victim's intake of alcohol -- as well as that of an intentional or accidental arsonist -- that contributes to fires and injuries. False alarms provide further challenges to fire safety, Cusick said, as they dampen residents' recognition of the seriousness of alarms. In 1999, only 48 of 335 fire alarms in campus buildings were real fires. To combat these challenges, University Police have pledged vigorous investigation of all false alarm incidents. "People become very complacent when it comes to alarms, so our goal is to decrease the perception that when someone hears bells, it's some kind of a false alarm," University Police Chief Maureen Rush said. "We're also really adamant about prosecuting anyone who has pulled a false alarm or discharged a fire extinguisher." Rush, whose department works directly with Cusick's division of Fire and Occupational Safety, added that the Seton Hall fire may have been a valuable warning sign for the rest of the higher education community. "It takes a tragedy sometimes," Rush said. "Seton Hall, tragic as it was, will probably end up saving lives across the country."

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