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“A combination of unrelated factors” led to Hillcrest carbon monoxide leak

<p>Oxford Fire Department has signed its first labor agreement with the city.</p>

Oxford Fire Department has signed its first labor agreement with the city.

Following the evacuation of Hillcrest Hall due to a carbon monoxide leak, Miami University is investigating the situation and working on solutions. 

Two weeks after the incident, University Communications sent out an email acknowledging that the occurrence in Hillcrest has violated the trust students place in Miami to provide safe housing. The email also detailed Miami’s investigation of the situation and how it plans to move forward.

The university has been working with Prater Engineering to understand what happened in Hillcrest and determine if other buildings on campus are at risk of experiencing similar carbon monoxide leaks. 

With Prater Engineering, Miami discovered that “a combination of unrelated factors created a situation in which exhaust from a water heater could be pulled inside the building.” 

According to the email, buildings are designed to prevent air from entering the building, but an air handler malfunctioned in Hillcrest the day of the incident, letting outside air enter.

The carbon monoxide was produced by a nearby water heater vent, and winds trapped and concentrated the gas against the side of the building. The carbon monoxide was then able to travel from the first floor of the building to the upper two levels in Hillcrest. 

“We are taking every precaution to ensure our campus community is safe and have checked all of our other campus buildings to determine if there is a similar risk,” the email read. "No problems in other buildings have been identified." 

Miami also hosted two town hall sessions to answer questions about the incident and steps taken afterward. The first was held for students in the Hillcrest lobby at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, and the second was held virtually for interested Miami parents at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7.

The Dec. 7 town hall session featured panelists David Creamer, treasurer and senior vice president for finance and business services, Cody Powell, associate vice president for facility planning and operations, and Jayne Brownell, vice president for Student Life. The panel  was moderated by Elizabeth Walsh, director of orientation and transition programs.

The town hall began with Powell describing the heating system in Hillcrest and what ultimately led to the carbon monoxide leak. 

At 4:30 a.m. an air handler shut down, which Powell said isn’t uncommon and sometimes does occur. Planning and Operations is notified when a unit goes offline, and Powell said they discussed this particular air handler the next morning in their maintenance staff meeting. 

“The units are not life safety systems, so we don't treat them as an emergency. They're typically addressed within 24 hours,” Powell said. “We did schedule the work to repair and restart that unit that day. At the time when we were investigating, we didn't really understand the importance of that unit being offline.”

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Powell said the wind outside was also a likely contributing factor. 

“We've had a few unique situations that kind of converge,” Powell said, “Which resulted in carbon monoxide that reentered the building.”

Hillcrest was exempt from a carbon monoxide detector requirement because the gas generated by the water heaters was sealed and exhausted directly outside without entering residence hall rooms. Other university buildings are exempt if they don’t produce any carbon monoxide.

Powell said Miami is currently working to install carbon monoxide detectors in residence halls and will evaluate if they are needed in other buildings as well. Additionally, his team is working on redesigning how domestic hot water is provided to buildings at Miami preferencing having no sources of combustion. 

Brownell discussed the communication that occurred during the incident. She said everything in regards to communication went according to plan that evening. 

“It isn't something that you are going to see as parents all over the country or all over the world,” Brownell said. “Because when something happens on campus, our priority is campus.”

Brownell said even though carbon monoxide was only detected in part of the building, Miami made the decision to evacuate the entire residence hall as to not take a risk. 

As the evening went on, Powell and his team updated the Miami community on how much longer they believed they would need to identify and stop the source. Due to the unique circumstances, Brownell said Powell and his team were likely going to need to continue their investigation overnight. 

“This design of the building should not have allowed for a carbon monoxide situation,” Brownell said. “It was so unusual.”

As soon as it became clear that Hillcrest residents would be unable to stay in the building for the night, alternate arrangements were made. 

“I will say that never in my career, never in any of my team's careers, have we evacuated an entire building of 262 students for a night,” Brownell said. “This is a highly unusual situation. That takes time. So we had to identify spaces.”

Throughout the day, Miami used listserv groups for emails, GroupMe, RAs and other staff on the ground and the parent Facebook page to communicate.

One parent submitted a question saying their student had been taking an exam when the alarm went off and was told to retake the exam the next day. The parent wanted to make sure that those accommodations were what was supposed to have happened.

The university encouraged students to write to their professors about what was happening and that through no control of their own they may be without books and laptops for several hours. Brownell let the parent know she was very sorry that had happened to their student and said that it was up to professors what accommodations they provided. 

The university intends to make permanent improvements over the summer. 

In the meantime, several temporary measures have already been taken, including installing temporary carbon monoxide detectors in all residence halls and relocating hot water heater exhaust vents away from Hillcrest before January. 

Other measures include conducting evaluations of water heating systems to see if similar incidents could occur and working with the Office of the State Fire Marshall to review actions and encourage requiring carbon monoxide sensors.

Hillcrest residents will also be credited $250 on their housing bills for Spring semester. 

Brownell emphasized Miami’s gratitude towards the Hillcrest residents who played a role in detecting carbon monoxide.  

“We really are very grateful that the students who had the carbon monoxide monitor did call the fire department and did call the police,” Brownell said. “It did identify a larger problem that we could resolve and we're grateful for that.  I really do just want to acknowledge that and know that we share that with the students as well.”