From a high of 20 in the 2006/2007 academic year, the number of campus fire-related deaths has dropped dramatically to only four this year. With such a clear multiyear, downward trend, can we attribute part of this to such programs as National Campus Fire Safety Month?
I think we can, for several reasons.
Almost all of these deaths have happened in off-campus housing, where about two thirds of the students live. I don’t believe there has been a significant improvement in the housing stock, much of which is one- and two-family converted houses, so I think that we can discount this as a change.
At the same time, more campuses and communities are doing awareness and education programs. These include side-by-side burns, fire extinguisher training, RA fire academies and using social media to engage students in fire safety.
In addition, each year a letter, cosigned by 25 parents who have lost children in campus fires, is sent to the nation’s governors to ask them to sign proclamations designating September as Campus Fire Safety Month. Since 2005, 300 proclamations have been signed, along with resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, all contributing to this heightened awareness.
With such a dramatic drop in fire deaths, not much change in the housing stock and more education programs, I believe students are more aware of their personal responsibility in fire safety, which is translating to fewer fire deaths.
In other words, education works!
Using Video to Engage Students
But engaging students in fire safety is a challenge. It’s not a priority for them when they leave for college, so it’s important to be creative with messaging. There are many ways to do this, but one that’s very effective is video.
The Michael H. Minger Foundation has added a new series of a dozen videos called “Did YOU Know?” to its library. These short videos, about 30 seconds each, feature students asking important questions, such as “Did you know that smoking is the leading cause of fatal fires?”
Other questions ask what students know about exits, cooking and much more. Produced under a Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) grant, they’re available for downloading, streaming and embedding.
I’ve been doing campus fire-safety programs with the Minger Foundation in high-risk communities in West Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky and on the Navajo and Tohono O’odham Indian Reservations, and we’ve seen first-hand the value of video.
It’s a very effective way to communicate, but one of the biggest challenges we faced was making the message (and video) short yet still getting the message across. We worked with students in putting these together and they were instrumental in helping us make the videos relevant to their peers.
Students were closely involved with another FP&S grant project, the video “The Alarming Truth.” It tells the story how a fatal off-campus fire impacted the student’s friends and family. This video created by the Clery Center for Security on Campus in partnership with the Campus Firewatch, the Philadelphia Fire Department, the University of Pennsylvania and the Minger Foundation, was written and filmed by and featured students from Rowan University. It’s available for free download, along with a guide and other resources, at AlarmingTruth.org.
In addition to the “Did YOU Know?” series, other videos on the Minger Foundation’s website focus on students with disabilities and resident assistants talking about fire safety. Also, a series of posters (suggested by a focus group of RAs) can be downloaded, and two guides, “RAs Guide to Teaching Fire Safety” and “Guide to Teaching Fire Safety to Students with Disabilities,” are available.
Many college fire deaths have the same profile as fires in general society—smoking materials, missing smoke alarms and lack of exits among them. But by fixing the college fire problem, we may be on the way to changing the future of fire safety everywhere.