Fire officer keeps eye on campus safety

Jim Patton steps into the hallway behind Bueno Burrito and pauses. A pile of neatly stacked cardboard catches his eye. The Corvallis Fire Prevention Officer has just finished inspecting the Mexican restaurant in the Memorial Union and found that everything looked satisfactory, but the cardboard, while tidy, is obstructing the hall.

Corvallis Fire Safety Officer Jim Patton, center, inspects an oven hood in the kitchen of Panda Express in the Memorial Union, as he shows Braydon Bigam of the Corvallis Fire Department how to inspect cooking equipment. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Corvallis Fire Safety Officer Jim Patton, center, inspects an oven hood in the kitchen of Panda Express in the Memorial Union, as he shows Braydon Bigam of the Corvallis Fire Department how to inspect cooking equipment. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Patton calls manager JB Vanhecke over to look at the stack, and explains his concerns about the potential hazard of blocking an exit route, and Vanhecke quickly agrees to move the stack to a safer spot.

For Patton, who has spent the last 14 years inspecting every building on campus for fire safety, these friendly conversations go a long way toward safety compliance. When Patton finds things that violate code, it’s usually a matter of not understanding certain safety concerns, rather than a willing disregard of rules.

On a cloudy Tuesday morning, Patton spent hours combing the Memorial Union, which provides a labyrinth of rooms, closets, kitchens and storage areas to be inspected. Along with Mike Mayers of the Memorial Union, who helped unlock doors and answer questions, he spent time checking electric cords, testing exit signs, checking hallway access and making sure to note any violations he found.

The Corvallis Fire Department contracts with the university to do these annual inspections. Each building on campus receives an inspection on either a one-year or a three-year basis. Residence halls, academic buildings with laboratories, and other buildings with a higher life-safety hazard potential are inspected annually, while other buildings are seen on a three-year rotation. That means that Patton does 40 inspections each year, or four a month (none in October of July), in addition to a re-inspection to check and see if problems have been addressed.

Patton said it’s important that one person has been doing inspections for so many years, because the university is so extensive, and there are so many different people overseeing different parts of the university, so he has to know who to report to when he sees code violations.

“We’re shooting for 100 percent compliance,” he said, but he sees only about 60 to 70 percent when he re-inspects violations.

“Part of the challenge is the whole deferred maintenance issue,” he said, referring to the backlog of building improvements and fixes that are piling up due to a lack of funding.

“The university makes fire and life safety a priority,” he said, but there are still some older buildings on campus which aren’t retrofitted with sprinkler systems. The university tries to install systems into buildings on an annual basis, but it’s a big and expensive project.

“One of our biggest challenges is working in older structures and implementing codes in older buildings,” he said.

Patton, pictured making a report as he inspects the MU bowling alley, does annual inspections on all the buildings on campus to make sure fire safety issues are monitored and addressed.

Patton, pictured making a report as he inspects the MU bowling alley, does annual inspections on all the buildings on campus to make sure fire safety issues are monitored and addressed.

In addition to inspections, Patton also focuses on education, including holding fire academies on campus, reaching out to the Greek community, and speaking to small faculty groups.

He said the most common violations he finds in faculty and staff offices are use of extension cords which can get overloaded, and having space heaters that don’t have an automatic shut-off function when they tip. Patton recommends faculty use power strips in their offices to prevent electrical fires, and investing in safer heaters.

“Faculty and staff members play an important role in minimizing fire hazards and correcting the ones that are brought to their attention as a result of my fire inspection – after all it is for their protection ultimately,” Patton said..

He is also working on a “Clear the Halls” program so that faculty and staff never leave anything in the hallways, particularly surplus items awaiting pickup or material removed from rooms and labs as part of a remodel or reflooring project.

To contact Patton about fire safety issues, call 541-766-6903 or e-mail jim.patton@ci.corvallis.or.us

~ Theresa Hogue

Comments are closed.