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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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