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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Today's students bring a tremendous number of electrical devices with them when they come to campus. This can range from big-screen TVs to portable electrical grills and this creates several problems. The first is that in older buildings, whether they are residence halls, Greek housing or off-campus housing, there may not be either enough capacity in the electrical system to support all of these devices, or there may be insufficient outlets. If there is not enough capacity on a circuit, this can result in overloading, brown-outs, overheating and other problems that can contribute to a fire.

Also, if there are not sufficient outlets, then the occupants may get creative in how they plug in all of their devices, such as running extension cords under carpets or behind furniture. In addition, this contributes to the overloading problem when too many devices are plugged into one outlet.

Hidden Smokers

More schools are banning smoking in residence halls for both health and fire safety reasons. While this is obviously beneficial, it has also created the problem of the "underground," or hidden, smoker. Students still want to smoke (and it isn't always cigarettes) and may go to creative lengths to conceal their smoking, which isn't limited to just covering smoke alarms in their rooms.

At one school, a student taped a rolled-up towel to the base of his door so that the smoke would not be drawn into the corridor. He then put a lit incense stick into the crack between the door and the jamb and proceeded to smoke and fall asleep. The incense stick fell out of the door and onto the rolled-up towel, igniting it.

Housekeeping

Housekeeping is an issue for several reasons. First, an accumulation of trash or other items can block egress and access for the fire departments. Bicycles seem to be a particular problem as they are stored in hallways and stairwells, chained to the railings and left in a number of other places.

An accumulation of trash can also become an easily-ignitable fuel load. In the 1996 fraternity fire at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that killed five students, a cigarette ignited a pile of trash in the basement of the fraternity after a party. The fire did not break out until the next morning and killed three students sleeping on the top floor of the building.

Large Numbers Of Occupants

Housing around most campuses is very tight, which usually translates into higher rents. To help reduce the per-person cost of the monthly rent, students will often try to have a large number of people living in a house. To avoid the overcrowding that may occur, some communities have passed ordinances limiting the number of unrelated occupants at a given number. However, this is often difficult to enforce proactively.

Students will often live in "creative" living situations or have an unusually large number of people in one apartment or house to help reduce the per-person cost of housing. A number of the fires occur in what can perhaps be called "substandard" housing. Typical off-campus student housing is often made up of one- or two-family houses that are now used as rental properties and where as many students are crammed in to lower the rent as much as possible.

According to a study done by USA Today, 69% of campus-related fire fatalities that it identified had occurred in houses that had been built before 1930. These can create several problems, including inadequate electrical capacity for today's students, insufficient bedrooms, poor egress, poor heating, which can lead to use of alternative heating sources, and much more. Furthermore, because of the age and condition of the house, the landlord may be reluctant to make upgrades such as installing a residential sprinkler system.

As an example, let's talk about a house where the author lived in 1983 while a junior in college. While this is almost a quarter of a century ago, I wouldn't be surprised at all to find the same conditions at many campuses today. When the five of us lived there, it was what I would call a "tired" house, and I can only imagine how "tired" it is now, many years later. To fit five of us and give each of us our own room, some creativity was necessary, and one of my roommates moved his bed into a large closet, ran an extension cord in there and put up shelves for his candles. And he smoked. Another roommate had a basement study room that he partitioned off with sheets of plastic and used a space heater to keep warm. Why we didn't become statistics, I really don't know.