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Campus Fire Safety: Securing Student Safety with Their Help

A campus can include residences, laboratories, daycare facilities, assembly locations, retail, industrial and agriculture, all with different fire-protection needs. Add to this mix thousands of students and all the behavior issues associated with 18- to 22-year-olds. Providing fire protection to this diverse audience is a challenge that the 4,000-plus colleges across the United States face.

Teaching fire prevention to students may be the biggest challenge. But why?

Picture an 18-year-old, heading off to college. New experiences, new opportunities, new friends: how much of a priority, really, is it to know two ways out? Rules about no candles, no tapestries on a dorm room ceiling, no smoking (whatever they may be smoking)—these are designed to spoil their fun, or so they think.

Many move off campus to escape the rules designed to spoil their fun. No resident assistants, they can smoke, have friends over, drink, have parties without consequences. Yes, the smoke alarm might keep going off, but the solution to that is pretty simple (tape, plastic, screwdriver or baseball bat). There's only one stairway leading up to the attic that has been turned into an illegal apartment, but what is wrong with that? They only need one way in and out of their room, after all.

Since 2000, there have been 163 campus-related fatalities; 85% of them happened in off-campus occupancies.

However, there's a definite downward trend and the picture is especially good on campus, where the last fatality in a residence hall was in 2005 and the last in a fraternity was in 2006. Even though fatal fires are still happening off-campus, the numbers have been going down, but there are still common factors in a number of these incidents—smoking materials, egress and disabled or missing smoke alarms—that must be addressed.

The challenge is focusing on the off-campus fire-safety problem. This can be a combination of a strong inspection program to ensure that the building stock meets code, coupled with a creative and aggressive education campaign, with a heavy emphasis on the creative part. There are many ways to communicate fire safety to students, but the methods used today won't be used tomorrow.

Just when you start to learn how to use one social-media platform for fire safety, young people move on to something else because you're using it to communicate with them. Facebook is a great example of this—the largest demographic using it isn't 18-to-22-year-olds. According to The Pew Internet & American Life Project, teen interest for using Facebook has waned as they diversify their social-media platforms.

Fire-prevention education on a campus must be a multichannel approach, with no single solution being the magic bullet you're looking for. It's important to evaluate what you're doing and whether it's making a difference, or if it just checks off a box.

Some schools and communities are working to address the off-campus issue, some in partnership with each other while others are taking a unilateral approach. Cincinnati had a tragic fire where two students were killed in an off-campus fire because they were trapped in their third-story bedroom with only one way out. The city undertook an education and outreach program to reach students.

In Boston, after two fires within 17 months of each other in off-campus student housing right across the street from one another, the city stepped up its enforcement and inspection programs, along with passing new ordinances. But in both cases, the schools haven't been very active partners in those efforts.

When I contact a school to get details after a fatal fire, the first thing they tell me just about every time is that it was an off-campus fire and not really their responsibility.

Off-campus fire safety is a combined responsibility between the school, the community and the students. Even though these are off-campus, it's the schools' students who are being killed. Students must be actively involved and made to realize they're now the ones ultimately responsible for their safety.

We've been incredibly successful with such fire-safety messages as crawl low in smoke and stop, drop and roll; these are incredibly sticky messages that have stayed with people since they were young. College students need to realize they're now responsible for making sure they live in fire-safe housing, that there are smoke alarms and that they work.

Unfortunately, many of these students may believe fire safety is kids' stuff. This is far from the truth—they just don’t realize that the responsibilities are now theirs. This is where education must come into play.

Campus fire safety is a shared responsibility, and often it takes one person to step forward to bring others along. Why not be that person?

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