Here’s what Arizona State University should learn from the now-lengthy closure of Memorial Union after a suspicious fire Nov. 1 — delaying basic safety improvements during building reconstruction doesn’t save any money in the long run, but such procrastination does put people at risk.
Memorial Union has been the social heart of ASU’s Tempe campus for 52 years as a key gathering place for students to study or relax together, to grab a meal, to shop for books and to organize their causes. Joining a trend for many universities, ASU completely remodeled Memorial Union in recent years to expand dining options and to meet other needs of the modern campus dweller.
But ASU neglected to follow a simple but important tenet: Remodeling older buildings includes updating the safety infrastructure. The Tribune’s Ryan Gabrielson reported Thursday ASU postponed installation of a fire sprinkler system on the second and third floors of Memorial Union because of a lack of cash. That means ASU officials gambled that no fires would break out before enough money could be found to add the sprinklers, intended to take place in the next two to three years.
ASU lost that bet when a blaze did occur Nov. 1 in an upper level closet. More than 5,000 people had to be evacuated as most of the eastern end of Memorial Union burned. No one was injured due to good fortune and the quick work of campus employees and area firefighters.
Gabrielson pointed out the state Legislature has a lousy track record when it comes to providing money for building maintenance to be used precisely for this kind of task. Legislature budget analysts estimate the state’s three universities haven’t received $376 million as they should have in the past seven years.
But ASU can’t escape blame for making the wrong decision about the sprinklers. The university did have other choices. Phases of the remodeling at Memorial Union could have been arranged differently so appropriate safety equipment was included at each stage. Or construction could have been postponed or scaled back for new buildings on campus to make enough funding available. Or a tiny portion of recent tuition increases could have been set aside for this.
Now, state fire marshal Phil Mele has ordered the fire sprinklers be installed before parts of Memorial Union can reopen. That means ASU will have to rush to get the project done, likely at even greater expense than if the work had occurred during the remodeling. Meanwhile, students will have to endure additional weeks or months of displacement.
Both legislators and ASU officials must do whatever it takes to install required building safety equipment at the proper time. It’s economical, it saves lives and it’s the law.