The Nation Must Focus On Campus Fire Safety

June 1, 2003
It has been 3 1/2 years since a dormitory fire at New Jersey's Seton Hall University killed three students and briefly focused public attention on the danger of fires in college housing. While there have been some gains in the uphill battle to bring fire safety to the nation's college campuses - which have a long history of fatal fires - progress has been agonizingly slow and limited to a few places. The death toll continues to mount, with 50 more student fatalities since the Seton Hall fire, including 12 in the past four months.

The latest incident occurred last month at Western Kentucky University, where a 19-year-old female student was murdered in an arson fire. She suffered stab wounds and third-degree burns when a fire was set in her room on the second floor of a nine-story residence hall. It could have been another multi-death disaster, but investigators are convinced that other lives were saved because a single sprinkler head in the victim's room sounded an alarm, extinguished the fire and confined it to the point of origin.

The Bowling Green Fire Department responded shortly after 4 o'clock on a Sunday morning and its first-due companies were on the scene within four minutes. Chief Gerry Brown told Firehouse® that the sprinkler had prevented a flashover and the spread of heat and toxic smoke that is deadly in high-rise fires. Sixty other residents of the building were never endangered and Chief Brown reports, "An even worse tragedy was averted because of the sprinkler. The fire was confined to the victim's bed and some pictures and posters on the wall."

The fact that the building was required to have sprinklers is a tribute to the courage and determination of Gail Minger, whose son died in a dormitory fire in 1998 at Murray State University in Murray, KY. The building did not have sprinklers and 15 other students were injured in the arson fire. Motivated by her grief and anger, Minger embarked on a personal crusade to improve fire safety on college campuses. "I had to do something to protect others so that Michael did not die in vain," she explains. Minger took her battle to the state legislature, where at first she was met with indifference, then resistance from college officials and the powerful education lobby, which did not want to spend money on fire protection.

Working with state fire organizations, Minger persisted and eventually gained support for her campaign. At the urging of the legislature, Kentucky's Council on Post Secondary Education ordered that all dormitories had to be protected by sprinklers. A "right-to-know" bill was passed, requiring the schools to immediately report every fire and to make public the measures being taken to prevent fires. As a mother who lost her son in a fire, Gail Minger can sympathize with the family of the woman who died in the most recent incident, but she also can take comfort in knowing how many lives were saved because of her efforts.

Only three states - Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - and a handful of local jurisdictions have passed college sprinkler laws. "There has been only minimal progress," says Ed Comeau, founder of Campus Fire Watch, a reporting service dedicated to college fire safety. He is a former investigator for the National Fire Protection Association and has prepared a package of videos and educational material to assist fire departments and others concerned with the problem. (Campus Fire Watch can be contacted at P.O. Box 1046, Belchertown, MA 01007; telephone 413-323-6002.)

"In most legislatures the bills are introduced, then die in committees," Comeau reports. That dismal picture includes the U.S. Congress, where every attempt to provide federal aid has failed. However, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey) has drafted a national "right-to-know" college fire safety bill and other legislation will be reintroduced in this session.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there are 1,700 fires every year on college campuses. While attention has been drawn to multi-death fires in dormitories and fraternity houses, 78% of the fatalities have occurred in off-campus housing, where universities do not have control and fire prevention is the responsibility of local fire departments. Comeau sees this as the most neglected aspect of the problem. Of the 53 student fire deaths in the past 31/2 years, 41 were in private rooming houses and apartments, seven in dormitories and five in fraternity houses.

A major contributing factor to the death toll is student lifestyles. They're young and they do goofy things - like decorating their rooms with flammable materials and lighting candles, getting drunk, smoking and cooking on hot plates. They also disable smoke detectors, pull false alarms and set fires for fun or with malicious intent. In fact, arson is believed to be the leading cause of dormitory fires. Because of the false alarms, it has been the policy at many schools to send the campus police to investigate before calling the local fire department. Hopefully, that dangerous practice is being stopped and firefighters are being notified without delay.

Realistically, student behavior is not going to change and the challenge is to protect a high-risk population that lives in high-risk buildings. As shown by last month's tragic incident at Western Kentucky, even with murder and arson, an even greater tragedy can be prevented when a building is protected by sprinklers.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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