Each year, many students lose their lives or are injured in preventable fires. Now that students have moved into college residence halls, off-campus housing, or fraternity/sorority houses for the school year, the American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) Fire Protection Practice Specialty (PS) is urging them them to be aware of life-saving fire prevention knowledge. ASSE has prepared (and is distributing) free fire safety tip sheets and a flier with information on how students can stay safe (see the “on/off campus fire safety tips” portion of the ASSE site).
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 3,300 structure fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and barracks in 2002-2005. These fires caused an annual average of seven civilian deaths, 46 civilian fire injuries, and $25 million in property damage. In addition, fires in dormitories or dormitory-related buildings have increased by 3% from 1980 to 2005.
“Every year, we hear of repeated tragedies involving college students injured and killed in fires. One of the largest losses of life in recent history occurred in 2007 claiming the lives of seven University of South Carolina college students in a single tragic event,” said ASSE Fire Protection PS Administrator Frank Baker, CSP, CFPS. “Although the incident occurred away from campus, it involved students nonetheless and points out the need to be aware of the risk of fire and how devastating the results can be in any situation where many persons occupy a single structure.”
Though a number of student-related fire tragedies occur both on and off-campus, the majority of campus fires occur off-campus. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), out of the 129 campus-related fire fatalities that occurred from January 2000 to the present, 108 occurred off-campus.
On May 21, 2008, a Tompkins Cortland Community College student was killed in an off-campus fire near Ithaca, NY. On August 2007, a Bradley University student died in an off-campus house fire; the building was not equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system. In 2006, an off-campus fire that started in a plastic container used for discarding smoking materials took the life of one Cornell University student and injured another; in 2005, an off-campus arson related fire killed one University of Maryland student and critically injured another; in 2004, a Greek-Fraternity house fire with an unknown cause killed three Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity members at the University of Mississippi; and in 2003, five Ohio State University students were killed from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an arson related off-campus fire.
“Students and parents should plan and ask questions about fire safety when moving into on or off-campus housing,” said Maureen Kotlas, CSP, CPEA, member of the ASSE Fire Protection Practice Specialty Advisory Committee and director of environmental safety at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. “Students should always follow safe practices and realize the role of alcohol in fire fatalities. Behavior as well as planning and asking questions, are all factors in preventing on and off-campus fires.”
The USFA notes that there is a strong link between fire deaths and alcohol stating that in more than 50% of adult fire fatalities, the victims were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the fires. The USFA also states that in cases where fire fatalities occurred on campus, alcohol was a factor. Drinking alcohol impairs judgment and can hinder efforts to evacuate during a fire.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Fire Deaths and Injuries Fact Sheet, most victims of fires die from smoke or toxic gases, not from burns. And, according to the USFA, smoke inhalation alone accounts for 39% of residential building fire injuries. Smoke inhalation occurs when one breathes in the products of combustion during a fire.
With that said, each residence hall should be equipped with properly operating doors with self-closers that are not propped open; clearly marked exits; corridors that are kept clear and are not blocked; heating and ventilation systems that are routinely inspected and repaired for any deficiencies; and properly operating fire alarm and extinguishing systems, and equipped where required.
On August 14, President Bush signed the Higher Education Opportunity Act into law (Public Law No: 110-315), which includes language requiring colleges that maintain on-campus student housing facilities to provide information on campus fire safety practices and standards to the U.S. Department of Education. The data reported should include: the number of fires and the cause of each fire; the number of injuries and deaths related to a fire; the value of property damage caused by a fire; a description of on-campus student housing fire safety systems; the number of regular mandatory supervised fire drills; policies or rules on portable electrical appliances, smoking, and open flames, procedures for evacuation, and policies regarding fire safety education and training programs provided to students, faculty, and staff; and plans for future improvements in fire safety, if necessary.
Baker added, “The ASSE Fire Protection Practice Specialty strongly supports all efforts being made by local enforcement officials and school housing bureaus to improve the awareness of students and parents in the area of fire safety. To that end, ASSE has assembled information to assist all students and parents to ensure their living situation is as safe as possible. These tips are intended to remind both students and parents to identify potentially dangerous conditions that could cause fires, result in students not being alerted to a dangerous situation or prevent them from safely evacuating in the event of an emergency. Fire prevention and preparation for on/off campus fires and all emergencies are keys to life safety.”
On and off-campus fires can be prevented by implementation of sound fire safety activities such as not overloading extension cords, power strips or outlets; cooking safely; avoiding open flames, and; correctly discarding smoking materials. Injuries and fatalities can be avoided by developing a fire escape plan; having and knowing how to work fire extinguishers, escape ladders and fire alarms and detectors; as well as knowing where exists are located. ASSE is providing free fire safety tips on statistics, prevention tips, fire escape planning, fire safety equipment for off-campus and Greek housing, information on recent incidents, a parents guide to fire safety: what you need to know when your child leaves home for college, a list of key resources, and an on/off campus fire safety flyer.