On April 8, researchers and students from Virginia Tech and Virginia Western Community College will participate in an unusual experiment in the name of fire safety by igniting two nearly identical residence hall rooms on fire.

'Oak Flame 2011' is the result of partnership between Virginia Tech and several area community colleges and is part of a $3.8 million Department of Labor grant. The project provides community college participants with valuable construction and management experience while demonstrating to students living on college campuses and university officials the importance of sprinkler systems and obeying fire safety regulations. 

Sponsored by the Virginia Tech Environmental Health and Safety, Oak Flame 2011, will begin at 1:30 p.m. at the Oak Lane community on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus and will feature two mock residence hall rooms custom-built as a class project by Virginia Western Community College students with the assistance of Virginia Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction. Each room reflects contemporary designs and building codes and is furnished like typical student rooms, and like many rooms, they will feature elements such as decorations and unapproved curtains that violate existing fire safety rules. Engineering students from Virginia Tech's student chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers will outfit both rooms with sensors and high-tech cameras.

Only one room, however, will be retrofitted with sprinklers, courtesy of Eagle Fire Inc. At approximately 1:30 p.m. both rooms will set on fire. Since the rooms will be built with large viewing windows, participants will be able to visually see the difference in combustion process, flames, and other factors as the fire spreads through the two rooms. Researchers will also gain a sample fire model for residence hall rooms that will be used to inform future building projects and codes.

Members of the Virginia Tech community and general public are invited to see this demonstration of the effects of the materials and furnishings on the combustion process, and the impact sprinkler systems have for those trying to survive a building fire.  

Organizers of Oak Flame 2011 also hope to take the data and video images from the burn and develop educational materials for students and residential life administrators at campuses around the world. 

“We want students and others to see how these furnishings and decorations contribute to a fire and make them realize the reason behind fire codes and other safety regulations in dormitories with visual representation,” said event organizer Tolga Durak of Blacksburg, Va., a Ph.D. candidate majoring in environmental design and planning in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and Virginia Tech fire engineering programs manager. “Also, we want to demonstrate the effectiveness of sprinkler systems in general.”

After the burn visitors will be able to see exhibits and demonstrations from a variety of related groups, including the Society of Fire Protection Engineers student chapter, the Division of Student Affairs, and Environmental Health and Safety, which will conduct hands-on fire extinguisher demonstrations. The Blacksburg Volunteer Fire Department and the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad will also be available to talk about their roles and field questions. 

Charles E. Altizer, the state fire marshal of Virginia, and representatives from the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and the Virginia Fire Prevention Association is scheduled to be on hand to participate in the event.

While the event should be both entertaining and informative for those on hand, Durak says he hopes the project will have a broader impact. “Hopefully we’ll get the data and the visual evidence people need to take fire safety in residence halls seriously.”

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