How to Reduce the Risk of Residence Hall Fires

After a residence hall fire killed three students and injured 62 at Seton Hall University in January of 2000, administrators moved to ensure against a recurrence of such a tragedy. Strict behavioral policies accompanied construction work that added sprinklers to all residence halls.

Ten months later, a patrolling fire department officer encountered a party in the residence hall where the fatal fire of 2000 had occurred. Before the party, students had organized a Halloween decorating contest. Many rooms offered creatively carved pumpkins adorned with candles. Paper decorations flowed through all the rooms and doorways. Ankle-deep layers of hay covered the hallway floors. In short, the party defied all the rules aimed at prevention instituted after the first tragedy.

The fire department official, of course, shut the party down and demanded a thorough cleanup.

Vigilance Pays Off

“Preventing fire in campus housing takes constant vigilance,” says Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Fire-Watch, a monthly electronic newsletter based in Belchertown, Mass. “A school’s population changes every year, and institutional memories are short. Administrators must communicate policies and procedures effectively year in and year out.”

Since 1973, 45 fires in residences controlled by colleges and universities have claimed the lives of 73 people.

While the threat of potentially fatal fires remains uppermost in the minds of fire- prevention experts, the number of fires in college- and university-controlled housing has declined through the past 20 years.

According to statistics assembled by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) of Quincy, Mass., fires in school, college and university residence halls, and fraternity and sorority houses fell from 2,500 in 1980 to 1,400 in 1998.

Why this decline?

“You can study incidents of fire in virtually any kind of structure and see a similar dramatic trend through the same period,” says Dr. John Hall, assistant vice president for fire analysis and research with NFPA. “The most likely explanation is a combination of factors, including better designs, changes in general public policies and safer behaviors.”

For example, continues Hall, fewer people smoke today, and most public facilities have restricted where and when people can smoke. Nationally, there has been a general decline in arson, which is the chief cause of fires in campus residences. Policies against cooking in residence halls have come under tighter enforcement.

NFPA studies rank arson, cooking and smoking as the top three causes of residence hall fires between 1994 and 1998.

Hall also sees the decline in reported numbers of residence hall fires as a result of improved and more widely used fire- detection and suppression systems, such as smoke alarms and sprinkler systems in public buildings. “Thanks to these systems, discovering and controlling a fire sometimes happens so fast that no one calls the fire de-partment to report a fire,” Hall says.

Fire Prevention

Comeau suggests a four-pronged program called PODS to help college and university administrators organize fire-prevention efforts.

Developed by Dr. Fred Mowrer of the University of Maryland, under contract with the U.S. Fire Admini-stration, PODS stands for Prevention, Occu-pant awareness, Detection and Suppression.

Prevention encompasses a range of construction features such as firewalls, fire doors and noncombustible construction materials.

In addition, PODS prevention requires campus officials to combine clear fire-prevention policies with strict enforcement penalties. “Policies might include prohibitions against halogen lamps, candles, cooking and smoking in residence halls,” Comeau says. “Of course, it’s important to communicate why such policies are important. Nonsmoking policies, for instance, have important health benefits as well as safety benefits.”

To ensure compliance, Comeau recommends penalties scaled to fit infractions ranging all the way up to expulsion.

Students who tamper with smoke detectors in residence halls should face expulsion, he believes. “You’re not only putting yourself at risk, but also the larger population in the residence hall,” he says.

Comeau also notes that many schools have created educational-style penalties for lesser infractions. Amherst College, for example, requires students who break fire-safety rules to develop, promote and deliver a fire-safety presentation. Students must research the issues and write a lecture. They must promote the lecture and find 15 to 20 students willing to attend and then make the presentation.

Other schools require community service in relation to infractions, Comeau says.

Comeau himself has set out to help build the second leg of PODS, Occupant-awareness, by organizing an annual campus program called “Living With Fire.”

He acquires funding for the weeklong program from various organizations. This year, the American Cancer Society, the NFPA, the National Fire Sprinkler Association, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the U.S. Fire Administration, SimplexGrinnell (a company that manufacturers fire alarms and sprinkler systems), and the University of Texas System contributed to the program, which ran in early April.

“Living With Fire” distributed literature that college administrators can reproduce for students as well as dramatic demonstrations of the danger posed by fire. “The high point of the week came when we burned down a mock-up of a dorm room on participating campuses,” Comeau says. “The demonstration showed the speed with which a fire can spread and the damage it can cause.”

For more information about the program and to acquire the literature, visit , and see the link to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Detection, the “D” in PODS, begins with what Comeau calls a full fire-alarm system. The features of such a system include smoke detectors in individual rooms. “Ideally, these detectors should be connected to a larger fire-alarm system,” he says. “If a detector goes off, a signal should go to a monitored location, and someone should respond.”

A full system also includes pull-stations in hallways that activate an alarm. “The alarm must be audible in all portions of the building,” continues Comeau. “New standards, for example, specify decibel levels at pillow height, to ensure that the alarm is loud enough to wake up a sleeping person.”

The final leg of PODS is suppression. Comeau believes that sprinkler systems may represent the most important means of suppressing fire available to campus officials. “According to NFPA, the chances of someone dying in a fire in a sprinklered building are cut in half,” he says.

While newly constructed residence halls generally include sprinkler systems, the vast majority of older halls do not, because of the cost of installation. But this may be changing, thanks to parents. “Parents are looking for sprinklered residence halls,” Comeau says. “And schools can use these devices as a competitive advantage when talking to prospective students.”

Nevertheless, the best reason for adopting PODS or some other formal approach to fire safety harks back to the NFPA statistics. Fourteen hundred residence hall fires per year are still far too many. And the risk to students is far too great.