Colleges on Alert After Rash of Campus-Related Fires

As students return for the start of the spring semester across the country, some colleges and universities have been put on alert following a spate of seven campus-related fires that have occured this year.

Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch and a former chief fire investigator for the NFPA, said that while the number of fires has raised some alarm, it's not uncommon for them to occur as a new semester approaches.

"Generally, at the beginning of the semester, everyone is back together for the first time. Students are having parties," he said. "There are a lot of different factors coming together that can contribute to a fire."

Of the seven fires that occurred between Jan. 14 and Jan. 29, four occurred off campus.

According to Comeau, two-thirds of students in the U.S. live in off-campus housing and since 2000 accounted for 86 percent of the 152 campus-related deaths in the country.

He attributed this in part to the types of housing available in many college communities.

"I wouldn't say it's all substandard," he said. "It might meet code, but often times students are willing to put up with some things if it means paying less for rent."

To help prevent such fires, Comeau says fire departments local colleges and universities must work together to get the message out to students.

The only fatal fire of the six occurred in the early morning hours of Jan. 21 when two students and one former student were killed in an off-campus house at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

On the Tuesday following the weekend fire, members of the department, along with Marist officials and members of the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, did a door to door campaign targeting off-campus housing.

Eighteen Fairview firefighters, one firefighter from the Roosevelt Fire District that volunteered, nine employees from OFPC and four officials from Marist spent 3-and-a-half hours in teams of 10 that hit 210 houses on 27 different streets.

They distributed fire safety information, offered non-punitive inspections and handed out and installed smoke alarms.

"It was extremely positive and everyone was very welcoming," Fairview Fire Chief Chris Maeder said. "While we were out, we found a lot of things we didn't know existed."

It was the first time the department had done anything like it and he said that they are considering similar campaigns in the future and plan to attend the college's housing fair in March.

By the time crews arrived, the two-and-a-half story wood-framed structure was fully-involved. Maeder said firefighters initiated an interior attack, but needed to be pulled out because of the conditions.

He said that overall, fires are hit-and-miss near the college.

"It seems like we'll do a lot around the college one year and not many the next," he said, adding that there are open lines of communication between the department and college officials. "We have a really good working relationship with the college. Within a half-hour of the fire we had contacted them."

Maeder said that fire departments that have a college or university in their district "need to get out and know the students that live in their communities. It's just part of being a fire department and knowing the places they service."

The most recent campus-related fire occurred in the early morning hours of Feb. 2 at a dormitory at Portland State University. Close to 300 students had to be evacuated from after a fire ignited in a trash dumpster chute in the basement of the building. The fire began to spread throughout the building, but a sprinkler system quickly put out most of it.

Another of the three on-campus fires occurred at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse early Jan. 29 and La Crosse Fire Chief Greg Cleveland said the relationships his department has built with the school and its faculty played a big role.

The fire started shortly before 4:30 a.m. in an unsprinklered basement lounge of an on-campus residence hall that was built in the late 1960s and sent smoke up to the above floors.

The department does all of the training for the resident assistants -- something Cleveland said was invaluable in evacuating close to 250 students from the building.

"As this fire unfolded, we evacuated the students very quickly and I think part of that is that there is a very good relationship and the fact that they have all embraced the concept of fire safety."

He said that the university has recently torn down older dormitories and has replaced them with ones with sprinklers and expects that to continue.

Following this incident, which is the first major fire on the campus since he took over as chief in 2006, he said plans have been made to meet with officials to see what they could improve on for the future.

He said that his relationship with university officials -- including the chancellor -- helped with communication the day of the fire.

He said that he has met the head of the university on several occasions and that they spoke to each other while at the fire.

"I think it's important that both the chancellor and fire chief are on the same page when it comes to fire safety," he said. "I recommend to other chiefs that the first time you meet the chancellor shouldn't be at a fire."