Minn. Univ. Participates in Campus Fire Safety Month

Students and staff at one Minnesota University remembered a student who was killed in an off-campus house fire Thursday, by holding their second annual Fire Safety Expo.

In December 2010, University of St. Thomas student Michael Larson, 21, was killed when a discarded cigarette ignited a fire at his off-campus dwelling in St. Paul. Two other students escaped by jumping from a second story window.

More than 200 students gathered around a series of fire safety demonstrations to learn about the impact of fire on their lives as students living in both off- and on-campus housing.

St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said the event is “for the students and staff to learn the dangers and common hazards of living off-campus where the buildings are not always sprinklered.”

There are close to a dozen colleges and universities in St. Paul, with tens of thousands of students living at on or off-campus housing, plus thousands who commute from home.

Talking about the more than 6,000 undergraduate students who attend St. Thomas, Josh Hengemuhle, area manager for office-campus student services, said the event raises the awareness of fire safety in their busy lives.

"Other than the live demos we saw here today, for a lot of them their only exposure to fire comes from TV shows and it makes it look like you have 30 minutes for the fire department to get in and out before you are in danger,” Hengemuhle said.

Firefighters provided a demonstration where one ounce of water was poured into a pan filled with one inch of hot oil that was being heated on a stove. Flames engulfed the trailer before shooting out, creating intense heat made many students back up.

Students also watched as two mock dorm rooms, set up with typical dormitory furniture, were set on fire.

The unsprinklered side burned for close to five minutes until the temperature at the ceiling reached 1,000 degrees when smoke and flames engulfed the space. Firefighters moved in and knocked down the fire with a hoseline.

The next unit was set on fire and the sprinkler system was set off in about a minute, containing the fire to a chair.

Today’s event caught the attention of many passersby.

“Seeing our beautiful quad with smoke and fire coming with it certainly brought some students over to see what was happening” Hengemuhle said.

He said other ongoing efforts take place at the campus.

The university’s wellness center has created a smoking cessation program that encourage students to stop smoking, which is another leading cause of campus-related fires.  

And in the last week, St. Paul firefighters stopped a porch fire discovered in the early morning at a house, before it spread inside the home. The fire was started by propane grill.

St. Thomas also provides 9-volt batteries to students who live off campus to coincide with the change your clock, change your battery program. They also provide educational materials and carbon monoxide awareness materials throughout the year.  

Of the exhibits today, Zaccard said, “We wanted to show how much safer you are if you choose on or off-campus housing that’s equipped with sprinklers, and we also make an effort to tell parents about our concerns.”

"Off-campus housing is our biggest concern,” said Zaccard. “We do inspect off and on-campus units, but it’s really up to the students to reduce the probability of fire once we leave.”

Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch, a website and newsletter dedicated to tracking campus-related fires, said “More and more schools are providing fire safety education activities during Campus Fire Safety Month.”

Since he began tracking these fires in 2000, 155 people have died in campus-related fires across the nation and over 85 percent of them occurred in off-campus occupancies.

With a high of 20 fatalities during the 2006-2007 academic year, the numbers were decreasing until the 2011-2012 academic year when nine deaths were reported.   

In 2012, 28 states issued proclamations for National Campus Fire Safety Month to raise awareness for this growing problem.

“Fire prevention is not just for their time at school or living on campus, but it’s important that they know two ways out and how to extinguish a fire no matter where they live,” Comeau said.