Off-Campus Fire Safety

Ed Comeau of Campus Firewatch discusses fire safety at off-campus houses in colleges and universities.


Ask any fire chiefs with colleges or universities in their communities what their high-risk population is, and the answer is almost universally "students." How these students live and behave has a significant impact on their level of fire safety and the outbreak of fires, which translates directly...


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Ask any fire chiefs with colleges or universities in their communities what their high-risk population is, and the answer is almost universally "students." How these students live and behave has a significant impact on their level of fire safety and the outbreak of fires, which translates directly into firefighter safety.

From January 2000 to July 2007, Campus Firewatch identified 109 campus-related fire deaths across the country. Over 80% of them have occurred in off-campus housing, which is where approximately two-thirds of the students live, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

"Our biggest challenge is off-campus housing," said Chapel Hill, NC, Fire Chief Dan Jones. In 1996, one of the worst campus-related fire tragedies occurred at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, when five students were killed on Mother's Day, which also was Graduation Day. This fire brought a new focus and emphasis on campus fire safety in residence halls and "Greek" housing. However, the off-campus fire safety problem still exists today in Chapel Hill and across the country.

"With sprinkler systems we have solved the Greek issue, but the off-campus housing, particularly single family residences, is probably our biggest concern," continued Jones. "The codes don't allow us to inspect them. There are requirements for smoke alarms, but it depends upon the occupant taking action."

A vast majority of the victims killed in campus-related fires were students, but others have also been killed in these fires. Since they occurred in student housing, Campus Firewatch counts these deaths when compiling the campus-related fatalities.

In Berkeley, CA, a mother and father helping their daughter move into her off-campus house were sleeping in the house when the fire broke out. All three were killed. A senior in Lincoln, NE, was killed in a fire three hours before she was scheduled to deliver her baby, and both the Lincoln Fire Department and the state fire marshal called this a double-fatality. In a gas explosion and fire in graduate student housing in Texas, the mother and child of a student were killed.

Common factors

A number of common factors have emerged in looking at these incidents:

  • Lack of automatic fire sprinklers — None of the buildings where these fires occurred were equipped with automatic fire sprinklers.
  • Missing or disabled smoke alarms — Frequently, the buildings are equipped with smoke alarms when they were rented, but at some point before the fire, the smoke alarms were removed or disabled.
  • Careless disposal of smoking materials — As with fires in all occupancies, not just student-related, smoking materials is one of the leading causes of fatal fires.
  • Impaired judgment from alcohol consumption — This leads to the situation where an inebriated person may be the cause of the fire or may be unable to react to a fire.

Firefighter Safety

A common scenario is that a fire breaks out in the early morning after a party. A cigarette was carelessly disposed of or it fell down into a seat cushion. The smoke alarms were taken down or the batteries removed so they would not go off during the party, and the occupants have been drinking and are not able to react promptly or correctly to the fire. On arrival, the fire department is faced with a fire that has had time to develop and extend well beyond the area of origin. There are still occupants inside the building, but since some of them may be overnight guests, no one is sure how many may still be inside.

There are several concerns regarding firefighter safety in student housing. First and foremost is the potential for fires in these occupancies. Obviously, if there isn't a fire, then there isn't a need for fire fighters to respond and lives (both civilians and responders) aren't put at risk. So what factors make these occupancies a particular problem?

Electrical Devices

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