Students learn the hard way

Students learn the hard way

It’s that time of year again as thousands, nay tens of thousands of fresh faced students leave home, many for the first time in their lives, to attend University. Mum has packed them off with everything but the kitchen sink to squash into the changing cubicles that pass as student accommodation in most Halls of Residence.

The shock to the system for the erstwhile fresher is the realization that for the next 4 or 5 years they have to largely fend for themselves rather than relying on the miracle that is mother to do the dirty work. Small details like getting to grips with the woolens cycle, relying on their own common sense to stay out of trouble and feeding themselves on the pittance left over once the bar bill has been paid will all take their toll.

Not all take to this with the aplomb expected of an otherwise intelligent university entrant as the students in the University of Portsmouth’s James Watson halls of residence found out last week when more than 100 students were evacuated after a fire broke out on the first floor.

Someone had apparently forgotten they had left a pan cooking merrily on the hob. Cooking oils and fats like any other oils have an auto-ignition temperature above which they ignite spontaneously. For the benefit of non science students out there, unlike more traditional flammable liquids such as petrol and solvents, the auto-ignition temperature for cooking oils can vary immensely. Auto-ignition can occur anywhere from 285°C to 385°C. For auto-ignition to occur, the entire mass of oil must have been heated to beyond the auto-ignition temperature. However, once ablaze the oil changes composition slightly resulting in a new auto-ignition temperature, which may be as much as 30°C lower. The result is the fire becomes self-sustaining until the entire mass of oil is cooled to below this new lower auto-ignition temperature.

The pan in question duly overheated, the oil ignited and caused a fire which quickly spread to the cooker hood and ceiling. One male student tried to do the right thing and threw a fire blanket over the pan. This is absolutely OK if the fire is confined to the pan. He may possibly have had better results with a wet chemical fire extinguisher which is designed specifically for this type of fire and includes a long lance so you can apply it from a distance.

However if the fire has spread to other combustibles the best course of action is to raise the alarm, get out fast and call the emergency services. The brave chap, who also had asthma, found this out the hard way and was overcome with the fumes but thankfully with the prompt intervention of Southsea Fire Services he and his cohorts survived unharmed.

It is a statistical fact that most chip pan fires are caused in the evening and quite late at night when a quick fry up after a few pints of the amber nectar seems de rigueur. Ironically for students starved of mum’s home cooking, like its pal the tin opener the chip pan is seen as a virtual lifesaver. The first lesson they should be taught is that it can also be a life taker.



Comments (2)

  • Colin Campbell Reply

    I would like to make the following observations;
    1. It is not right to say that most student accommodation is like a changing cubicle. The standard of accommodation varies considerably.
    2. The way that the article is written would indicate that the individual took the right action. He did not and it should have been clearly underlined that when a fire has spread beyond the pan of fat, it should not be tackled.
    3. When using a fire blanket, it should not be thrown over the pan but placed over it and the heating element turned off.
    4. By saying that he may have had more success with a wet chemical extinguisher there is an inference that he should have fought the fire, which without training would not have beed safe.

    October 28, 2009 at 10:46 am
  • admin Reply

    On the student accomodation front i confess my comment was borne out my own experience when attending Stirling Campus and temporarily at Durham. Lets hope Colin is right and things have improved although I did have some of my tongue in my cheek when penning the piece.
    I did not seek to infer that the Student was right to try and tackle the fire and specifically wrote that “if the fire has spread to other combustibles the best course of action is to raise the alarm, get out fast and call the emergency services”. I have to concede that placing rather than throwing a fire blanket is preferable but in the heat of the moment (pardon the pun) the distinction might be mute on the person doing the placing. I did state however that “This is absolutely OK if the fire is confined to the pan” and in that respect agree entirely with the comment.

    The issue raised on fire extinguishers and training is perhaps the most important point made as it really calls into question the whole justification for installing fire extinguishers.
    Instructions on how to operate any type of fire extinguisher are printed on the canister and if the Legislation and Codes of Practice are followed also on a separate sign placed adjacent the unit. The Fire Safety order also calls for adequate training but in a campus environment it is clearly not easy to do and some will train more easily than others. It has been argued that the very act of providing extinguishers puts lives at risk as it invites the untrained to tackle a fire.
    Extinguishers should only be used to tackle small fires but where you draw the distinction between large and small is an arbitrary judgement at best. This debate will run and run but on balance the official statistics do show that fire extinguishers play an important role in fire protection and have prevented many small fires from taking hold. They also contribute to ensuring safe evacuation of a building. Maybe as part of a students induction the University could present one of the Fire Safety Training programmes available on this site on DVD which contain video of how to use a fire extinguisher safely.

    October 28, 2009 at 1:37 pm

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