National Call to Arms for Campus Fire Safety

Amherst, MA – The August 27 fraternity fire that killed three University of Mississippi students underscores the importance of fire safety at our nation’s campuses. As students return to school, and as parents begin touring campuses this fall, experts suggest that fire safety should be one of the items high on everyone’s list when evaluating any school.

“Within the past week four students have died in fires,” reports Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety. “This is an incredibly tragic beginning to the school year.” This eclipses the previous death toll during the start of school in 2000 where a single fire claimed the life of a student and both of her parents in Berkeley, California.

According to information compiled by the Center, 66 students have died in fires and more than 90 percent of these fire deaths have occurred off campus since January 2000. Each year there are an average of 1,500 fires causing $9 million in damage in residence halls and Greek housing, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Added to these fires and damage is the untold number of fires that occur in off campus housing, such as rented apartments and houses.

Comeau said that common threads seen in off-campus fire fatalities often include:

  • Lack of automatic fire sprinklers
  • Missing or disabled smoke alarms
  • Careless disposal of smoking materials
  • Alcohol

“What is needed is a national ‘call to arms,'” said Sherry Kenyon, fire safety coordinator for the Boulder Fire Department near the University of Colorado. “Too many students are having their lives and futures cut short in fires that need not happen. There are steps that we can all take and should take to help stop this trend.”

Sprinklers in student housing provide an unparalleled level of fire safety. One example where sprinklers would have saved lives was in a fraternity fire at the University of North Carolina where five students were killed in a fire on May 9, 1996, which was both graduation day as well as Mother’s Day.

“If we had sprinklers in that fraternity house, the five students that were killed would be living, active members of our society today,” said Dan Jones, Fire Chief of the Chapel Hill Fire Department. “Now, all of the fraternities and sororities in Chapel Hill have these systems, and I sleep better at night knowing this. How many more times is this going to happen before the lessons are learned?”

Coupled along with automatic fire sprinklers should be fire alarms that will provide the early warning of a fire. “Smoke alarms and sprinklers together will give everyone the warning to get out and will control the fire, probably before the fire department even arrives,” says Comeau.

In addition to these systems the Center recommends a comprehensive fire prevention education and training program for all students living on and off campus.

“We have discovered ways to make the fire safety education for college students interesting and very interactive,” says Boulder Fire Chief Larry Donner. Colorado University at Boulder and the fire department holds regular Greek Fire Academies and Resident Assistant Fire Academies where students have the opportunity to navigate smoke-filled corridors, extinguish fires, drag victims out of buildings and many other fire fighting tasks. “This not only gets them actively involved, but it helps to make the fire safety messages ‘stick’ long after they move on,” adds Donner.

It is important that parents arm themselves with information. “There are questions that I wish we had asked when Dominic went to school,” says Donna Passantino Henson, who lost her son in a fraternity fire in 1999. “I encourage all parents to ask these questions and consider the answers when choosing a school. I never want a parent to go through what I had to when Dominic never came home.”

This list of questions includes:

  • How many fires have occurred on campus in the past year, two years, five years? How many students have been injured or have any been killed? How much dollar loss have these fires caused? This should be ALL fires, not just those reported as arson.
  • Are the residence halls equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system? If not, why not? Sprinklers provide that vital first line of defense when it comes to controlling a fire.
  • Does every student’s room have a smoke alarm? Does it send a signal to campus security or the fire department? Fire alarm systems will give everyone the warning that there is a fire and it is time to get out.
  • Does the school investigate the alarms before notifying the fire department? This will delay the arrival of the fire department when there is a fire, putting more people at risk.
  • Is smoking banned in the building? Smoking is one of the three leading causes of fires in residence halls.
  • Are candles and Halogen lamps prohibited?
  • Does the school have policies that electrical appliances and power strips be certified as safe and reliable?
  • How much fire prevention training does the residence hall staff receive? Who provides it?
  • How often are fire drills conducted?
  • What is the school’s disciplinary policy towards students that cause false alarms or fail to evacuate?
  • How many false alarms have occurred in the residence halls? False alarms cause students to stop paying attention to the alarms, which can be a fatal decision. False alarms ARE avoidable.
  • Does the school provide fire extinguisher training for students?

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