Increase Safety for Campus Fire Safety Month

By PHILIP CHANDLER

Every firehouse that serves a college campus or neighborhood should note that September is Campus Fire Safety Month (CFSM). This particular population is truly at risk and yet is unlikely to visit you during the traditional Fire Prevention Week. They will not be climbing on your apparatus or listening with rapt attention as you explain the dangers of fire and how to avoid it or what to do when encountering it. To get your message out to these people, visit them where they live and work. CFSM, coming at the beginning of each new academic year, is the most promising time to focus your full attention on an intractable problem—fires on campus or wherever students are found.

The Center for Campus Fire Safety™ (the Center) reports that more than 100 college students have died in fires during the past 10 years, a number made even more intolerable by the fact that each death was preventable. The sad truth is that college students are simply not prepared to face life away from home for the first time. They are seemingly oblivious to the dangers that surround them and are just as likely as not to exercise poor judgment when it matters the most. As it is with young people everywhere, they feel invincible. These factors all work to create a special challenge to campus fire safety, one that the fire service has not adequately addressed in schools.

Paul Martin, president of the Center, says, “The last fire awareness training most college students had was in elementary school; ‘stop, drop, and roll’ just doesn’t cut it when faced with an exit corridor filling with black smoke.” Martin continues, “Life safety education needs to grow and mature with students as they, too, grow in knowledge and understanding.”

The academic milieu also adds to the college fire hazard, which is permeated by inquisitiveness mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism. College is where many people first learn to explore and question long established beliefs and assumptions on every matter under the sun, including age-old notions of right and wrong. It is not generally amenable to any dicta starting with “Thou shalt not.” Obviously, life safety rules and regulations, regardless of whether they originated in the wake of some terrible tragedy, are just that—more rules and regulations, subject to examination, criticism and, yes, possible rejection.

If you are determined to end the unacceptable toll of college fire deaths and injuries, then you have your work cut out for you. The fire service has to counter general ignorance, disdain for universally accepted safety conventions and, even more so, a general apathy found everywhere in society. Put on your thinking cap and figure out how to get in front of college students and give them the real facts of life as you know them. Do the job that others so far have been unwilling or unable to do, and prepare them for a safe future.

The Center first promulgated the idea of a campus fire awareness month in 2005. By 2007, after many visits to Washington, D.C., the Center gained enough support in both houses of Congress for a national declaration of CFSM. Today, most states also have their own declarations, and colleges and universities across the country have also chosen September as the month to focus on fire safety. All have found the Center a willing partner in developing and successfully delivering meaningful instructional programs. The Center knows what works and is anxious to share that knowledge with fire departments everywhere.

CFSM is the time to roll our apparatus onto a nearby campus, not because someone burned popcorn or curled their hair, but to deliver the most impactful fire safety education possible, such as staging a mock dorm room fire at the busiest time of the day and in the most frequently traversed part of the campus.

Build a 12- × 8-foot, three-sided room that is furnished and appropriately decorated, replete with socks on the floor and the ubiquitous ceiling tapestry covering the smoke detector—then set it on fire with one carelessly tossed match (photo 1). This demonstration speaks volumes; students, faculty, staff, and administrators can experience the destructive power of a room on fire. They at once understand that fire is fast, hot, ominously dark, and unforgiving. All in attendance will come away with a lasting impression that an uncontrolled and uninvited fire is something to avoid at all costs. With a little encouragement from a skillful narrator, they soon realize that when the fire alarm sounds, there is only one right choice to make: get out and stay out. If you succeed at getting this point alone across, you have accomplished a lot!

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(1) Photos courtesy of the Center for Campus Fire Safety.

After the demonstration, you and other firefighters can fully engage all campus community members with any number of hands-on activities such as fire extinguisher training, navigating a dorm corridor filled with theatrical smoke, and working hoselines (photo 2). Staffing tabletop displays or simply hanging out and talking with passersby are of inestimable value. Every opportunity to casually interact with the campus community is an opportunity to positively influence and change perceptions that each side has of the other (photos 3, 4). Let’s face it—arriving on campus early in the morning with lights flashing and sirens blaring will not likely help you develop a warm rapport with those whose actions are responsible for the visit in the first place. CFSM is the time to start fresh and to build lasting partnerships based on trust and understanding between you and those whose very lives depend on your bravery and professionalism.

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The unfortunate downside to even the most successful CFSM activities is that regardless of how well choreographed the demonstrations and how enthusiastic the participants, hundreds or even thousands of participants may turn out to one of our campus events or fire prevention programs, but there will still be many we have not reached. We cannot let this deter us; we must continue what we do, knowing that with every event and positive impression we create, we may have already prevented a tragedy.

To gain further exposure, encourage media coverage in all of your endeavors (photo 5). Get cameras rolling, writers writing, and interviewers pursuing stories. When it comes to fire prevention, the media is a force multiplier. You are competing with a whole world of fleeting and transient images arcing through cyberspace; fight fire with fire to get the message out there.

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Also, bring the message to wherever laws and policies are principally made. CFSM is the opportune time to visit your elected officials and let them know the importance of fire safety and how critical their support is in safeguarding the next generation. Even in these days of fiscal belt-tightening, you cannot afford to cut corners when lives are still on the line. Turning the wheels of government is never an easy task, but it is a task you cannot forgo. By partnering with the Center, you can coordinate your efforts nationally to produce the greatest effect possible. Working with the Center has already resulted in many victories, which has produced needed code changes and launched campus fire safety education and inspection initiatives in many states. Most recently, the Center, in a joint effort with the fire service and supporters everywhere, has ushered in a new era of campus fire safety awareness and accountability with the passage of the Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act.

Fire safety demands a collaborative effort, and you must leave no stone unturned in assembling and joining with a powerful alliance of students, parents, faculty, college administrators, government leaders, and civilians who find the campus fire toll unacceptable. This is exactly the mission of the Center, and it is worthy of your support. But do not forget that no one apart from the fire service sees what you do every day, and no one else is in a better position to join with the Center to stop the senseless loss of so many college and university students to the ravages of fire.

PHILIP CHANDLER is a 20-year fire service veteran and a fire protection specialist with the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control. He is a firefighter and EMT with the Shaker Road-Loudonville (NY) Fire Department and works extensively in New York State’s pioneering campus fire safety program. He performs code enforcement, develops and delivers fire safety educational programs, and helps colleges and universities develop their own emergency preparedness initiatives. He has a master’s degree from the New York State University at Albany, where he does graduate research in urban planning. He is a member of the International Code Council and the Center for Campus Fire Safety.

 

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