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According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there are 1,700 fires every year on college campuses. While attention has been drawn to multi-death fires in dormitories and fraternity houses, 78% of the fatalities have occurred in off-campus housing, where universities do not have control and fire prevention is the responsibility of local fire departments. Comeau sees this as the most neglected aspect of the problem. Of the 53 student fire deaths in the past 31/2 years, 41 were in private rooming houses and apartments, seven in dormitories and five in fraternity houses.
A major contributing factor to the death toll is student lifestyles. They're young and they do goofy things - like decorating their rooms with flammable materials and lighting candles, getting drunk, smoking and cooking on hot plates. They also disable smoke detectors, pull false alarms and set fires for fun or with malicious intent. In fact, arson is believed to be the leading cause of dormitory fires. Because of the false alarms, it has been the policy at many schools to send the campus police to investigate before calling the local fire department. Hopefully, that dangerous practice is being stopped and firefighters are being notified without delay.
Realistically, student behavior is not going to change and the challenge is to protect a high-risk population that lives in high-risk buildings. As shown by last month's tragic incident at Western Kentucky, even with murder and arson, an even greater tragedy can be prevented when a building is protected by sprinklers.
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.