Off-Campus Fire Safety

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

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 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.

Is this relevant today? Let's look at a fire that happened at one school outside Boston. The victim lived in a loft over a garage that she had to access by climbing a ladder and then crawling through an opening. The loft was heated, so the landlord was renting it as habitable space, knowing that someone would be living in there. One night, a fire broke out. No evidence of a working smoke alarm could be found in the debris. While the cause of the fire could not be determined, it is believed that smoking materials may have been a factor.

In College Park, MD, there are a series of off-campuses houses called "Knox Boxes" that were built following World War II to house soldiers who were attending college under the GI Bill. The buildings are very simple in design with two stories and a basement and two apartments on each level. However, the basement units were not equipped with windows large enough for egress. These units were close to campus and while not the most desirable ones, they were always occupied because of the high demand for off-campus student housing.

For a number of years, local officials had been trying to get the landlords to replace the windows with larger ones that would allow the occupants to escape and for better access by firefighters. However, these attempts were constantly being delayed by the landlords using the hearing process to their advantage. A fire broke out in one of the basement units, killing the occupant. The cause of the fire was believed to be an appliance, and alcohol was a contributing factor, according to officials. The location of the fire blocked the main egress from this basement apartment. As a direct result of this fire, the building owner and others with similar properties retrofitted the basement windows so that there was improved egress for the occupants and better access for the fire department.

Parties and Alcohol

Even with a limited number of regular tenants, there can still be a large number of occupants in a house at any given time, but particularly when there is a party. In the aftermath of a party, there can still be a large number of guests in the house, and some of them may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which could impair their ability to respond to a fire.

"I don't know a fire department that doesn't have a student alcohol-related problem and we certainly do on a major campus like ours," said Tempe Fire Chief Cliff Jones, who has Arizona State University within his city.

Russell Bisbee, who was director of fire protection at North Carolina State University, said, "Typically, it was my experience that alcohol didn't play a role in the fire getting started, but it did have a significant role in the building occupants' response." The issue was that the students wouldn't evacuate, or weren't able to evacuate, when the fire occurs.

In Urbana, the home of the University of Illinois, Fire Chief Rex Mundt echoes that of his counterparts across the country. "We do fire drills each year in our Greek properties," he reported. "In one case, there were 20 people left behind during one drill."

In response to situations such as these, the fire department conducts additional training with these fraternities and sororities, but even with this training, not all is well. "We went back to one of the sororities that had two or three sorority members left behind (on one of the fire drills)," said Mundt. "We had an evening training session and they were all very interested. We went back the next morning and did another surprise drill and three girls were left behind, drunk."

Another problem that is emerging is that of houses being rented for only one purpose — parties. Since schools are exercising more control over Greek activities, one workaround is that a Greek organization will rent an off-campus house to hold parties in. There may be a few people living in it, but the primary purpose is to have a location that is not under as much scrutiny.

Campus Firewatch worked closely with USA Today in helping the newspaper prepare a major story on the impact of alcohol on campus-related fire deaths. Research conducted by USA Today of 43 fires that killed 62 students found that:

  • In 59% of the fatal fires, at least one student who died had been drinking
  • In 28% of the fires, the smoke detector was absent or had been disconnected
  • 66% of the victims of the fatal fires were juniors or seniors
  • 65% of the victims were male
  • 25% of the fatal fires occurred following a party
  • In 21 of the cases where an autopsy indicated the blood alcohol content (BAC), the average was 0.12 with a high of 0.304
  • Over half, 56%, of the fires occurred on the two weekend days, Saturday or Sunday, with 44% occurring during the rest of the week

In a study conducted by Dr. Dorothy Bruck and Michelle Ball from Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, students were given controlled amounts of alcohol to drink and then allowed to fall asleep in their own beds. Once they were fully asleep, they were exposed to gradually increasing levels of sound that simulate smoke alarms and their response was measured. Their response while sober was measured to determine a baseline response as well as their response at 0.05 BAC and 0.08 BAC. It was found that when students have been drinking it takes a much louder alarm sounding (95 dBA) to respond to smoke alarms than when they are sober, which may be expected. The normal smoke alarm is required to sound at 75 decibels (dBA) at the pillow.

What was troubling is the low level of inebriation (0.05 BAC) that caused the response capability to significantly deteriorate. In 36% of the trials the test subject did not respond until the alarm level was at 95 dBA or did not respond at all when they were at 0.05 BAC. This increased to 42% at the 0.08 BAC. Notably, while the response capability decreases as the blood alcohol level increases, it is not as significant as the increase from sobriety to 0.05 BAC. In other words, it does not take much alcohol to cause a significant decrease in the ability to react to an alarm. According to the study, "The meaning of this is that even at what many would consider to be low to moderate levels, alcohol can seriously affect a sleeping person's ability to respond to their smoke alarm. In fact, many participants reported feeling only slightly 'tipsy' at bedtime in the 0.05 BAC condition."

Student Knowledge

A recent study was conducted by the People's Burn Foundation and Campus Firewatch to gauge how much students knew about fire and burn safety. An online survey was conducted of almost 600 students and a series of focus groups were held at schools in Massachusetts and Indiana.

According to the study, "The respondents have a significant lack of knowledge when it comes to burn and fire safety. This was not only demonstrated in the answers to their questions, but also by the participants, themselves, admitting their lack of knowledge. This points not so much to a failure on the part of the student, but that of the fire safety community at large to develop and deliver programs targeting this demographic. Much of the nation's fire prevention efforts are targeted at the very young and the elderly, leaving a large gap in the middle that routinely do not receive burn and fire safety information. This is an unprecedented opportunity to change the future of fire safety across the nation by teaching this "captive" demographic what they need to know."

The report goes on to state, "Today's student demographic has a lack of relevant fire safety information. What is meant by 'relevant' is that students know what to do to protect themselves from fire in their current stage of life. A number of times, when asked what to do if their room was on fire, the response was either 'don't know' or incorrect responses such as 'stop, drop and roll,' or 'crawl low in smoke.' When asked how to treat a burn injury, the most frequent answer (by a significant margin) was 'I don't know.' "

In another section of the report, more information was provided about the student's lack of knowledge regarding fire safety: "The lack of knowledge was reinforced by their answer to the question 'What is your view of fire safety?' where they were allowed to give free-text answers. While the answers obviously varied, the one common theme that emerged in 20% of the respondents (it was essentially the only common theme) was how little they know about fire safety and how little training they have received. In the focus groups, a number of the participants also acknowledged, as a result of the meeting, that they suddenly realized how much information they lack when it comes to fire and burn safety."

What About Tomorrow?

There is no question about it that the greatest risk to students and firefighters is in the off-campus environment. A vast majority of the students live off-campus, and there are a number of conditions that can lead to not only fires occurring in these occupancies, but fire deaths and injuries because of the unique problems they present.

Improved building stock, frequent inspections and strong codes can go a long way towards improving these conditions in the long term. However, there is always the human element. A phrase that is often heard is that you can design the most fire-safe building in the world, until you put people in it.

Education is a key component to making today's student more aware and fire safe. The real challenge is how to do this education in a way that is effective and will "stick." The 18-to-24-year-old demographic has that sense of "invulnerability" coupled with the "it won't happen to me" attitude. The fire service has to be extremely creative and innovative when reaching out to these students.

By educating today's students we can have a chance to change the behavior of 17 million students. By providing them with effective fire- and burn-safety education, we can influence how they think, not only for the four years that they are in school, but for the rest of their lives. As they become the decision-makers of tomorrow they can have a significant impact on the loss of life in this country, both firefighter and civilian, but living a more fire-safe lifestyle. This is all possible, by starting now and today, with 17 million opportunities.