TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: You can't yell 'fire' in a crowded dorm -- but you can yell 'where's your fire safety inspection report?'



State inspectors recently wrote up Northern Illinois University for seven "severe" safety violations in a classroom/office building, including failure to label potentially hazardous chemicals or to make sure emergency lights worked properly.

It was, a state Department of Labor official told the Northern Star newspaper, the first time in 11 years that the department had gotten around to visiting NIU.

That sounds pretty slack, but in reality, a once-a-decade visit from independent inspectors still is more attention than a lot of college buildings receive.

An Iowa City man is suing the University of Iowa, alleging that the university and its property management company failed to repair water leaks in his campus apartment, resulting in mold that made him seriously ill. As a result of the lawsuit, the man discovered that -- as with many public universities -- UI does its own housing safety inspections. Had he lived in a privately owned apartment and not campus housing, the city's Division of Housing and Inspection Services would have had jurisdiction.

While in-house inspections are not necessarily inferior to those done by outside agencies, it is at least worth asking whether your college's inspection system is meaningful -- i.e., are there any penalties for flunking an inspection, as there could be if the inspection was done by a state, county or city agency?

There are two different fire-safety issues on campuses, and these may well fall within the jurisdiction of different oversight agencies, so doing some homework on the state and local government structure will save you wasted legwork.

As in Illinois, fire safety in a workplace (such as an office building) likely will be under the jurisdiction of a state labor department, but also may fall under a state fire marshal's office. The safety of residences is different. If they are inspected at all, the inspectors likely will come from the city or county health department or department of inspection services, not from the state.

Fire safety is one of many areas in which student journalists even at private colleges have the aid of federal disclosure laws to pry open otherwise-inaccessible troves of information.

Under the Higher Education Opportunity Act ("HEOA") of 2008, all colleges and universities receiving any federal money (and that's essentially all of them, even private ones) must publish a log of all incidents to which fire personnel respond, and a breakdown of all fire safety precautions in place at each campus residence hall. (As an example, this one from Stanford University is thorough, nicely organized and readily available online.)

A quick and potentially revealing story idea: Get a copy of your campus fire-safety policy and quiz people in residence halls about which items are and aren't allowed in dorms (and how often those prohibitions go ignored). What are the odds, for instance, that students at Florida Atlantic University know their college prohibits rice cookers, hamburger presses, frying skillets, space heaters and multi-plug electrical adapters in dorms?

Reviewing the reports (such as HEOA reports) that your college is required to publish is a good starting point, but there are plenty of revealing safety documents that colleges are under no compulsion to publish. It's your job to find those, too.

As the Northern Star noted at NIU, there is no requirement under Illinois law for colleges to give public notice when Labor Department inspectors detect workplace hazards. But any correspondence between a university and a state safety inspection agency should be readily obtainable through a public-records request. At a public university, the request may be directed to the university itself, but at a private university -- unless the college is unusually forthcoming with its documents -- the request might most productively be addressed to the state inspecting agency.

Tagged: public records, Transparency Tuesday