Fire Safety on College Campuses

Every fall, a mass migration happens in college towns everywhere as students start moving into residence halls, fraternities, sororities and off-campus houses. According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 20.4 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities in 2009.

This off-campus house was destroyed by a fire that started when students refueled a lit camping lantern inside a Jack-o-Lantern. Photo by Ed Comeau, Campus Firewatch. September 2012 was the eighth annual National Campus Fire Safety Month, a time when governors across the nation issue proclamations and schools conduct fire-safety programs. But what is the nature of the problem they're addressing?

In January 2000, I started keeping track of campus-related incidents and have compiled a comprehensive list of over 1,300 campus-related incidents in residence halls, Greek housing, off-campus housing and academic and administration buildings.

What emerged was the fact that the highest risk for fire deaths is clearly in off-campus housing, with over 85% of the fire deaths happening in this occupancy.

For fire chiefs, this isn't news. They know that in their communities the at-risk demographic isn't always the very young or the elderly, but may very well be college students. A number of factors can contribute to this, including substandard (i.e., cheap) housing that students tend to rent with a large numbers of students in one household to lower the rent.

A student from the Savannah College of Art and Design died in an early-morning fire started by careless disposal of smoking materials. Photo by Ed Comeau, Campus Firewatch. Add to this that these houses certainly aren't sprinklered, may not have adequate means of egress and the smoke alarms are often either not there when the houses are rented or are often disabled sometime during the school year.

In addition to the physical building, lifestyle is a major factor as well. Students who live off campus don't have the restrictions imposed in residence halls, such as bans against smoking, candles, incense and, most significantly, alcohol. In a number of fires, no sprinklers, missing or disabled smoke alarms, smoking and alcohol have been a factor.

A very typical situation seen in many college towns, a couch on a front porch. Photo by Ed Comeau, Campus Firewatch.An issue that's also emerging is upholstered furniture on porches and decks. A number of fires, some fatal, have involved upholstered couches and chairs. In a typical scenario, someone smokes on the porch early in the evening; in the middle of the night, a fire breaks out. There's no detection outside, so the fire gets a good head start before it gets into the house. Often, the fire is detected by someone passing by who raises the alarm, but in several cases, it has been too late for the occupants.

One of the most recent fires was at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where the students noticed the fire, thought they had put it out and went to bed. In the middle of the night, the fire spread into the house. Initially, everyone made it out safely, but one of the students didn't realize his friend was outside and went back in, crawling on his hands and knees below the heat and smoke. He wound up with severe burns, but was able to graduate with his class this past May.

Unquestionably, it's difficult to address the issue of the building conditions since there are so many buildings and they may be within code, yet not as safe as needed. Education is the answer—educating the student (and parents) on how to pick fire-safe housing, how to maintain it, how to prevent a fire and what to do if one does happen.

This is also an opportunity to establish a lifetime of fire-safe habits. For many students, fire-safety education may have stopped in about the fifth grade and the last thing they remember is to stop, drop and roll or to crawl low in smoke.

A fire in an off-campus house where 7 Boston University students lived forced some of them to jump out windows, severely injuring one. Photo by Ed Comeau, Campus Firewatch.They often don't realize that they're now the ones responsible for fire safety, that it's up to them to install and test smoke alarms, that they need to recognize two ways out when they walk into a restaurant, a movie theater or a bar. That they're the ones who need to know how to safely use candles and how to cook. They're the ones who need to know about smoking fire safety.

Let's be real. The number of people who die in campus-related fires is small in relation to the big picture. Since 2000, I've identified 155 campus-related fire deaths, a very small percentage of the roughly 3,500 people who are killed in fires each year. However, the college years are a unique opportunity to teach a new generation about fire safety so the messages they learn stick with them as they grow older and hopefully become a lifestyle, changing the future of fire safety.

It's a lot easier to teach someone who's 20 about fire safety than breaking the bad, lifelong habits of someone who is 65, right?

If you're looking for education resources, Campus Firewatch has put together free material for Campus Fire Safety Month that you can use any time of the year. This includes videos, downloadable posters, an information sheet, a map of fatal fires that can be embedded on your website and much more. By reaching out to students now, together we can help build a safer generation for tomorrow!

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