UConn Says Dorm Safe Despite Missing Sprinklers; State Report Due

By | September 1, 2005

University of Connecticut officials maintain that a new dormitory with an inadequate sprinkler system is safe for students, but the school will be required to post firefighters there 24 hours a day until the problems are fixed.

The announcement marked another episode in a string of problems with UConn’s $2.3 billion campus renovation programs, which have been plagued by cost overruns and violations of building and safety codes.

The state Department of Public Safety and the university’s building inspection department pored over the Charter Oak Suites after the university discovered that some areas of the dorm lacked sprinklers. The dorm is home to 654 students.

A state commission, created by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, is investigating the problems with the campus construction program and is due to submit a report and recommendations for reforms today, Sept. 1.

In response to the Charter Oak Suites situation, Rell ordered Public Safety Commissioner Leonard Boyle to review the plans of every university building where students live or study that was built under the UConn 2000 construction program.

“I am tired of the drumbeat of news reports about buildings that do not meet safety codes, especially when those buildings are structures where students live or attend classes,” Rell said.

“These are our sons and daughters,” the governor said. “The parents of Connecticut and elsewhere have a right to know they are sending their children somewhere safe when they send them off to school.”

UConn will be required to certify that each building was built in strict accordance with the architectural plans. Boyle and his staff will then confirm that those plans fully comply with fire and building codes, including sprinkler systems and fire stops.

Earlier, Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith, vice president and chief operating officer at UConn, said the university had decided to inspect all buildings not originally inspected by outside officials. Under state law, state buildings of a certain size that house a certain number of people are not reviewed by state building and fire inspectors.

UConn has been re-examining much of the construction performed over the past 10 years, after carbon monoxide was discovered last year in the new Hilltop Apartments. That led to inspections by engineers who found violations of building and fire codes at Hilltop and two other student housing complexes.

The co-chairman of the UConn commission, former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto, suggested Charter Oak Suites “might not be a salvageable building,” given the fire code violations. The suites and neighboring Charter Oak Apartments — recently found to have other code problems — were built about two years ago by a Texas firm and cost about $41 million.

But Karen Grava, a UConn spokeswoman, said an inspection conducted Tuesday determined that the university can keep Charter Oak Suites open by meeting certain conditions.

Besides posting two firefighters to watch the structure 24 hours a day, the university must remove a stove, restrict use of an assembly room without sprinklers to smaller groups, install fire detectors in the attic, install a sprinkler system in the attic and update students on what’s happening.

She said the university eventually plans to install additional sprinklers so the firefighters will no longer be needed.

Denise Grant, 21, of Morris County, New Jersey, has lived at the Charter Oak Apartments since mid-May. She said she feels safe living in the complex and doesn’t want to move.

“It’s going to be a pretty big disturbance because all of my classes are pretty much on this side of campus,” she said.

Grant, a molecular cellular biology major, said the university has done a good job keeping students informed about the problems with the dormitories and renovations being made.

Under the UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn programs, the legislature gave the university all authority to choose contractors and manage projects with no outside oversight.

But numerous code violations and cost overruns have been found at buildings including dormitories and the student union. State police are investigating whether contractors illegally cut corners.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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