College pours money into bonfire insurance

by Kate Lyon | 11/5/04 6:00am

Try and explain the Homecoming bonfire to people who have never been. Chances are they think the idea of students running around a towering burning structure sounds unsafe. But the College's proactive approach to risk management and a number of safety measures make the bonfire much less of an insurance liability than it might seem.

Many of Dartmouth's safety measures are fairly recent. The Texas A&M bonfire collapse in 1999 prompted a number of reforms in Dartmouth's orchestration of the bonfire, said Dean of Student Life Joe Cassidy. The College even hired the same consultant Texas used to evaluate Dartmouth's freshman sweep and bonfire.

"The A&M bonfire collapse allowed us to identify some resources to revamp the bonfire that we weren't aware of before," he said.

At the same time that a professional was examining Dartmouth Night activities, a group of students and staff were doing the same. Procedural changes -- including requiring builders to wear hard hats and gloves and construction lights on the Green during the fire to deter random assaults on the crowd from fired-up students -- have made the event less of a danger to those involved.

One aspect of the bonfire that Cassidy admits has not yet been tamed is the relatively recent practice of running around the bonfire while the structure burns. Unable to find another school or university that practices such an activity, the College has resorted to increased security to offset the peer pressure present on the Green.

"At other schools everyone just stands there," said Cassidy. "People complain about the security, but for some reason you guys are inclined to run while classmates and alums taunt you into doing things that normal people in their right minds wouldn't do -- so we try to save you."

The College's proactive approach is key to making the bonfire an event that the Office of Risk Management supports.

"While I still don't get a good night's sleep on the day of the event, the institution has done as much as we can to minimize the risk," said College Risk Manager Hank James in the Office of Integrated Risk Management and Insurance.

Calling security the biggest expense of the night, Cassidy cited donated labor and materials as reasons that the bonfire is not an expensive event for the College. Still, the College retains the expense of hiring an ambulance to stand by on the Green while building transpires, and assumes the financial burden for the additional staff the fire department employs during the event.

"On Friday night we put 12 people on duty," said Chief of the Hanover Fire Department Rodger Bradley "typically we have four on duty. It is a significant increase in cost, but Dartmouth covers the additional manpower expense for the duration of the bonfire."

Linda Kennedy of the Office of Student Activities and head of the working group for the bonfire declined to disclose estimates about cost of holding the bonfire assumed by the College.

The College is insured in a group program under a company called Genesis, along with 16 other colleges including Princeton University and Columbia University. According to James, this type of an insurance setup is necessary for obtaining liability coverage.

"[Genesis] understands higher education in general," James said. "They know there are special risks associated with colleges. A more commercial insurance company, based on a perception of what happens at colleges, might not recognize that higher education is in a special niche."

James declined to discuss the how much the College pays in insurance premiums, calling that information "something schools like to keep close to their chests."

Even so, there are some events, like the Psi Upsilon fraternity's Winter Carnival Keg Jump, that insurance companies are hesitant to underwrite because of the risk potential. An accumulation of claims from an activity can cause a company to conclude that they cannot make a profit and lead them to decline to underwrite the activity, which is what occurred in the case of the now defunct keg jump.

Each Greek House is required to have its' own insurance, according to James, who said that all houses on campus have shown evidence of holding liability insurance.

The cost of insurance premiums has risen on the whole since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but James said that Dartmouth has an advantage over other institutions in a market where losses exceed investment returns and premiums are high.

"Costs have risen, but not nearly at the rate of some other institutions because we haven't had a lot of claims, and the claims we've had have not been frequent or severe," James explained.

Ultimately, the College's approach seems to be working as well as might be expected, College officials said.

"We have events on campus that are inherently risky, like students running chainsaws and throwing axes," said Cassidy. "We continue to look at it as how we can support our students and keep them safe at the same time. With the exception of the running thing, we're pretty pleased with it."