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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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.