A nationwide campaign is underway to reduce the number of fire deaths at colleges and universities, with special emphasis on off-campus housing, where more than 75% of these fatalities occur. The effort was launched last month at a summit conference in Washington that brought together 40 fire officers, college administrators, legislators and fire prevention experts. Sponsored by the Center for Campus Fire Safety, it was the first time that leaders of all the elements involved have met face-to-face to exchange ideas and draft a plan to attack the problem on several fronts.
They came up with a plan that includes fire prevention education programs, early detection and suppression through legislation that would require sprinklers in every type of student housing – including dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses and the off-campus rooming houses. It’s not going to be easy, because most college administrators around the country are not yet on board and have a history of being hostile to fire service recommendations that would improve fire safety. They want to spend their money on other things and are capable of being a powerful lobby in the state legislatures and city councils that have to pass fire safety bills.
“We’ve got to start somewhere and the administrators seem to be more aware because of the higher profile these fires are getting in the media,” says Ed Comeau, director of the non-profit Center for Campus Fire Safety and a former investigator for the National Fire Protection Association.
Eleven college students died in fires during the academic year that ended last month. The U.S. Fire Administration reports an average of 1,700 fires on college campuses every year; 75 students have been killed in dorm, frat house and off-campus dwelling fires during the past 4½ years. These fires have occurred in 25 states, but only four – Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – have passed laws requiring dormitories to be retrofitted with sprinklers. Some local jurisdictions are considering sprinkler laws that would apply to fraternities, sororities and off-campus rooming houses but, to our knowledge, State College, PA, is the only town that has passed a sprinkler ordinance covering fraternities.
The more you dig into this problem, the worse it gets and it doesn’t matter if it’s a big university in a big city or a small college in a small town. When it comes to the off-campus housing that has been the site of most fatalities, the burden falls on local fire departments to make the inspections, enforce the codes and respond to the fires. At one university, a housing association that rents off-campus rooms advised students that they do not have to admit fire inspectors to the premises! That’s bad advice to give young people, some of whom like to smoke, drink, use drugs, cook on hot plates, disable smoke detectors and pull false alarms. Many state schools will not allow local inspectors in their buildings and some college security forces are under orders to take time to conduct their own investigation before calling the fire department when an alarm sounds. No matter what they call it or how much they try to justify this procedure, it’s a “delayed alarm” and it can be fatal.
At the federal level, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) has introduced the Campus Fire Safety Right to Know Act, which would require colleges and universities to provide information about fire safety to the U.S. Department of Education. It’s similar to a law requiring them to report statistics on violent crimes that occur on campus. Pascrell believes that knowledge of fire safety would influence students and their parents in selecting a school to attend.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) has re-introduced the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, which would reduce the depreciation schedule on retrofitting with sprinklers from 27 to five years. It’s aimed at all types of high-risk buildings, but Comeau thinks it might encourage off-campus landlords to install sprinklers. On the education front, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) and Sen. Mike DeWine (R), both of Ohio, have proposed a resolution designating September as “Campus Fire Safety Month.” (Ohio has had 12 college fire deaths since 2000, more than any other state.) The idea is to call attention to the fire safety problem and start educating the students as they arrive on campus to start the new school year.
Given the dangerous behavior pattern of the college population, it seems obvious that sprinklers are the only thing that can protect students from themselves and their nutty friends. But it’s an uphill battle to pass retroactive sprinkler laws and Comeau believes there also has to be intensive fire safety education programs aimed at administrators, students and their parents. “We have to create a fire-safe environment around them,” Comeau says. “Education is most important, but we have to approach it on many fronts – there is no silver bullet.”
(The Center for Campus Fire Safety can be contacted at P.O. Box 2358, Amherst, MA 01004-2358, by telephone at 413-323-6002 or via its website at www.campusfire.org.)
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.