Bluegrass lacks gas detection regulations

Chalice Keith/The News

By Collin Morris, News Editor

Murray State’s infamous explosion sent a shockwave across campus on June 28. In its aftermath, not only do gaping holes lie at the base of James H. Richmond Residential College, but also in the university’s emergency prevention measures.

After consulting with seven other Kentucky schools, The News learned Murray State is one of four major universities lacking natural gas detection systems in its residence halls.

While natural gas detectors are not explicitly required per Kentucky’s state building code, the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky University exceeded those guidelines, equipping each of their respective residence halls with natural gas detectors.

Murray State, Eastern Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky University and Morehead State University are not equipped with natural gas detectors in their student housing.

At the University of Louisville, the campus has transitioned away from natural gas, but remains equipped with detectors where applicable.  

“All of our buildings have basically the same type of system set up such that they have a comprehensive detection system, whether it be smoke, fire or gas,” said University of Louisville’s Fire Marshal Dwain Archer. He added the university overwhelmingly uses steam or electric power from their central power plant.

About an hour away, on the campus of its athletic foes, the University of Kentucky has found common ground with the Cardinals, mirroring their transition away from natural gas.

“We have very few pieces of gas-fired equipment, we have some gas-powered generators, but as far as everyday use we have very few facilities using it, and if we do they would have carbon monoxide detectors in those facilities,” University of Kentucky Fire Marshal Greg Williamson said.

Williamson also said the University of Kentucky installs detectors congruent with any other forms of gas used in its building.

At Western Kentucky, Fire Marshal Bob Austin testified to their system, which not only detects natural gas, but immediately alerts authorities.

“Basically everything that is gas-powered or [powered by] boilers, or gas water heaters are located in an isolated area away from the residential hall areas, but we do have the CO detectors in those areas, which are interconnected with the fire alarm system,” Austin said. “If they do go off then they set the alarm off in the building, and it would have to be investigated.”

When asked if Western Kentucky keeps gas-powered utilities close enough to residential halls to ever see a situation similar to Murray State’s, Austin responded, “not even close.”

Of the schools lacking these comprehensive gas detection systems, only Eastern Kentucky was able to defer to alternate safety measures, citing their handheld detectors, which may be used manually once a potential leak is reported.

“Obviously we don’t have any gas stoves within the residence halls themselves, those are all electrically operated,” Eastern Kentucky Fire Marshal Brad Early said. “Our main form of detection is if we’ve got somebody that smells it, we’ll get a phone call and head over there. We’ve got detectors ourselves that are handheld.”

After the gas regulator collision on Murray State’s campus, responders performed a soaping test, according to documents obtained by The News in an Open Records Request.

No leaks were detected by that test.

The soaping test is executed by pouring soapy water in areas suspected of gas leaks. If bubbles form in the air, the area is the site of a potential gas leak.

The regulator was then replaced, and the area declared safe. More than four hours later, New Richmond exploded.

Early stressed the urgency and severity of potential gas leaks at Eastern Kentucky.

“We activate a fire alarm and go in and inspect immediately – that’s a priority one call.” Early said.

Morehead State’s Director of Risk and Compliance James Frazier deferred questions about their systems to aforementioned state regulations.

“We operate off of building code, so [we follow] whatever building code requires at the time of construction,” he said.

Northern Kentucky officials confirmed its situation to be similar to Murray State’s, including a lack of gas detectors.

“In residence halls, natural gas is used only for commercial cooking…and for clothes dryers in common laundry rooms, boilers, and emergency generators maintained by Facilities Management,” Jeffrey Baker, director of safety and emergency management at Northern Kentucky, wrote in an email. “Natural gas is not available in the individual residential sleeping units. Stoves and ovens that are made available for use by students are powered by electric.”

In response to questions regarding the absence of detectors, Vice President of University Advancement Adrienne King wrote, “The building is/was not equipped with natural gas detectors as this is not a building code requirement.”

The Kentucky State Fire Marshal’s investigation has been ongoing since the case was deemed non-criminal and transferred from the Kentucky State Police on June 29. The assumed impact of natural gas detectors remains unknown. King deferred to the investigation when asked if other Murray State residence halls could see a similar fate as New Richmond.