Case study: Widener University

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff April 5, 2007

Michael Gaffney is not a professor. Yet as the life safety and compliance officer at Widener University in Chester, Pa., Gaffney is in charge of fire alarms, sprinklers, burglar alarms, and all OSHA compliance and environmental issues and he teaches many of the visitors a very valuable lesson.

“When parents and their kids come to visit Widener, we have them attend an orientation in which we review the school’s various safety features,” said Gaffney, who has been at the school for 13 years. “Inevitably, someone always asks whether we have sprinkler systems in the dormitories.

“Whileportant as sprinklers are, it’s the fire alarms and smoke detectors that parents should really be concerned about.I tell them, ‘A sprinkler system will save property; smoke detectors and fire alarms will save your child’s life.’”

Since 1998, the year Gaffney added the oversight of fire and sprinkler systems to his life safety responsibilities, 26 new addressable fire panels have been installed on the school’s two campuses (Chester and Wilmington, Del.), protecting a total of 1,723 beds in the school’s residence halls, as well as all of the fraternity and sorority houses.

Armed with a desire to upgrade the school’s fire equipment—and convinced that procuring it all from one manufacturer would translate to more efficient performance—Gaffney enlisted the expertise of the Chester fire commissioner at that time. He recommended that the school install systems campus-wide.

The Chester campus now features a total of 29 addressable panels—two different systems, eight older panels; the Delaware campus is equipped with five of the addressable panel models.

While the new systems are not being added at a regular rate, there is a definite strategy governing their installation.

“Every year, I put into my projected budget the cost of replacing two panels,” Gaffney said. “That’s in addition to any other renovations that take place on campus.For example, this past summer we put in five panels because we were doing building renovations anyway. When all is said and done, we’ll have between 35 and 40 of the [new addressable panels] between the two campuses.”

The systems are accompanied by an abundance of auxiliary devices, including heat detectors, smoke detectors, pull stations, strobes, tampers, and modules that monitor sprinkler workflow. Widener does all of its own system monitoring on campus through satellite receivers. With three of the manufacturer’s receivers already in place in the dispatch office, Gaffney is looking at the possibility of switching completely to the manufacturer’s specialized software package.

Gaffney points to the manufactuer’s non-proprietary aspect as a major advantage.

“Most of the systems we’ve used from other manufacturers are proprietary,” he said. “If something happens tomorrow and we decide not to use our current service provider, I can go to another authorized company for service. I am not locked into one service company. And having a small cabinet full of parts compared to having a cabinet for each manufacturer was a far more attractive scenario. Ultimately, we wanted to go with a product that any reputable alarm company could service.”

Joe Cliffe is the service manager and project coordinator for the installer that Widener used for all its systems. “Last year we did a particularly interesting set-up, where we had one system for 12 townhouses, one three-story dormitory, and a small office building,” Cliffe said.“It was a bit of a challenge figuring out how to map and program everything so as not to disrupt people who didn’t need to be disrupted.Still, it was far easier than it would have been with another system.”

There were other challenges as well.

“On the Delaware campus, we were swapping out old systems and replacing them while the library remained active. In that case, we were also taking part of the new addressable panel and merging it with the older conventional panel.And of course, all appropriate building and fire codes had to be observed,” Cliffe said.

Have any of the systems been put to the ultimate test?

“We did have one minor problem awhile ago,” Gaffney recalled. “One young lady got into bed— she was on the top bunk— and knocked some clothes off her bed onto a toaster, which pushed the plunger down and created a small fire in the room. However, the system responded and alerted us immediately and we

“The fact that we had hard-wired a smoke detector protecting each and every bed on campus was critical,” he said. “We just felt it was best for the overall safety of the students.”

For more information on the manufacturer, Silent Knight, visit