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Preventing On-Campus Fire Tragedies

By Linda Rudder, Manager of Marketing, Mac-Gray and Howard M. Seidler, Associate Director for Residential Services, Winthrop University

Each year, an average of 1,800 residence hall fires lead to injury, millions of dollars in property damage, and even loss of life at American colleges and universities. Despite administrators’ best efforts, college residence halls nationwide share the same risk factors—crowded groups of young people cooking on hot plates or too many appliances drawing power from a single electrical circuit.

Prevention by Eliminating Hazards

Nearly 40 percent of residence hall fires involve cooking appliances or overloaded electrical circuits. According to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) study on college and university residence hall fires, misuse of cooking appliances ranks as the second leading cause of campus fires behind incendiary or suspicious causes.

You only have to look at recent examples of how this hazard can lead to misfortune. In Boston, in March of this year, an overloaded electric circuit started a fire in a three-story apartment building housing area students. Thirty people, mostly students, were displaced, and the building was severely damaged. During the same month, an overloaded circuit started a fire in a residence hall room at Princeton University. Although the students were able to flee safely, the fire destroyed the entire room and its contents.

Academic institutions are taking steps to reduce fire hazards in residence halls. To offset this risk hazard, many colleges have banned cooking appliances in student rooms. But even though they are banned, students often bring illegal appliances from home, causing overloaded circuits and blown fuses. Many institutions hold room-to-room inspections to assess overall room condition and fire safety hazards. During these inspections, illegal appliances are confiscated and stored for student pick-up at the end of the semester. Additionally, some schools are sending information directly to parents about the hazards of cooking appliances on campus, and encouraging parents to help make sure that these items are not brought from home to campus. Implementing maintenance procedures to track blown outlets is another way to evaluate potential problem rooms where circuits are consistently being overloaded, which can then permit follow-up with the students who live in these rooms.

Detection, Suppression & Compartmentation

Other methods to improve student housing fire safety include Detection systems, such as smoke and fire alarms, which are “active” systems that require certain events to occur before they offer protection.

These systems alert residents to fire in its early stages, giving as much advance warning as possible so occupants can leave the building. It’s important to check these systems often. However, too many false activations or fire drills can cause students to “tune out.” Such was the case at Seton Hall University in 1999, which led to 62 injuries and the tragic death of three resident students.

To avoid the “tune out” problem, alarm systems should be tested during summer break and at other times students are not on site. Fire drills with students should be scheduled on a regular basis but not excessively. If alarms are being falsely activated, housing officials need to take immediate steps to identify and eliminate the culprits.

Alarm systems should be monitored regularly to make sure they’re in working order. In March, a fire occurred at a student housing duplex in Pennsylvania causing extensive damage on all floors and displacing all six student residents. The building had smoke detectors but some had been removed or disconnected. Housing officials can improve student safety by checking these systems on a regular basis and/or helping to educate students about the importance of checking these life-safety systems in their campus living quarters.

Fire sprinklers and extinguishers are also active systems. But unlike smoke and fire alarms, they both help suppress fires, providing they are in working order. While fire sprinklers are not required in all campus residence halls, colleges, recognizing the life-safety benefits of fire sprinklers, are increasingly adding fire sprinklers to new buildings or retrofitting older buildings that house students. Originally thought to provide excellent property protection from fire, sprinklers also increase the likelihood of surviving a fire by half to two-thirds, according to the NFPA.

In February, a single sprinkler head contained a fire in a closet at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire. And, in March, a single activated sprinkler head contained a trash chute fire in a high-rise residential facility at Clemson University until the fire department arrived. All of the students in the building were safely evacuated.

So-called “passive” systems such as compartmentation offer round-the clock protection should a fire start. Examples include special building materials such as fire-rated glass and fire-retardant structural materials, including chip & board, cinderblock, non-combustible interior finish materials and others. Typically, glass will break when temperatures reach 250 F. Fire-rated glass can survive heat in excess of 1,600 F. With most structural fires capable of reaching 1,000 F within five minutes, the need for this specialty glass in campus dwellings is obvious.

Many communities require the use of fire-retardant materials in construction, but some do not. Many of these materials meet aesthetic, as well life-safety needs, so there’s no reason not to use them. When planning a window replacement project or renovation of an existing student residence, consider using all of the fire-rated materials you can.

Compliance with local codes and regulations

According to the NFPA, residence hall fires cause an average of $8.1 million in property damage each year. Compliance with state and local fire codes and regulations is critical to protecting property and enhancing student safety.

As legislation passes in each state, it is important to stay up to date on what these changes mean to your residence halls, and be aware of compliance schedules. Several good resources exist to help housing officials stay current on fire-safety news for colleges and universities. Web sites such as ResidenceLife.com and Campus-firewatch.com, provide timely and useful information on a range of life-safety topics for campus housing officials. Professional associations are another great source for information about campus housing safety news. Eliminating existing hazards in student rooms, making sure all fire and smoke detection and suppression systems are in working order, and using fire-retardant building materials whenever possible will reduce the risk of potential disasters. By taking these steps, housing officials can breathe easier knowing that they have taken the necessary steps toward preventing on-campus fires and ensuring the safety of its students.

About the Authors

Linda Rudder is manager of marketing for Mac-Gray Inc., a leading provider of amenities to colleges and universities nationwide. For more information, visit MACGRAY@WWW.MACGRAY.COM or call (800)298-1022.

Howard M. Seidler is Associate Director for Residential Services in the Department of Residence Life at Winthrop University. Howard can be reached at Phone: 803-323-2223, Fax: 803-323-2395 or on-line: seidlerh@winthrop.edu.