For the past decade, fire safety programs on college and university campuses have focused on keeping students safe while in campus residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses.

“Colleges and universities have safety programs for laboratories — to secure hazardous materials, for instance — and classroom buildings are generally considered safe environments,” says Randall L. Hormann, president and CEO of Cincinnati, OH-based Campus Fire Safety Com, LLC, a consulting firm that trains and educates educational institutions about fire and life safety.

In addition, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards require fire suppression systems such as sprinklers for what it calls special hazard situations. These include facilities that use or store flammable materials. Kitchens, cafeterias, and science labs should all make use of suppression systems.

“From a pure numbers standpoint, college and university environments are relatively safe from the effects of fire,” Robert Solomon, division manager with the NFPA’s Fire Protection and Life Safety Department, writes in a prepared statement. “We do not hear of major, catastrophic fires at college/university campuses. That is not to say that it can’t occur, but the loss data would point to some balance between commitment of resources, adoption and enforcement of codes and standards, and instilling some fire-safe behaviors among the student population.”

While that’s true, there are a number of small, too often deadly, fires in student housing on campus. Generally speaking, the cause is careless students.

At any given time, in a typical fraternity house, you can find a handful of students under the influence and perhaps unable to respond to an emergency, says Hormann.

Students in residence halls smoke, burn candles, cook, and plug too many electrical devices into single outlets using power strips. The NFPA says that these four activities are the leading causes of fires in student housing.

And that’s why student housing presents the greatest risk of fire on campus.

Fires in Residence Halls

While this is changing, most of the available data about fires on college and university campuses relates to student housing.

Every year between 2007 and 2011 an estimated annual average of 3,806 fires broke out in residence halls, fraternities, sororities, and barracks in the U.S., causing two civilian deaths and 30 civilian fire injuries each year — according to the most recent figures available from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Those numbers have remained relatively stable since 2000, but they are way up compared to the 1980s and 1990s. From 1982 through 1995, residence hall fires ranged from an average of 2,300 to 2,700 per year.

The year 2000 is an important marker for fires in residence halls. On January 18, 2000, a prank gone criminally wrong ignited a fire in a common area on the third floor of the six-story Boland Hall at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. The polyurethane furniture burned quickly, producing thick, deadly smoke.

The fire killed three freshmen and injured 58 students and staff members, as well as four firefighters.

Like many older residence halls on and off college and university campuses, Boland Hall was ripe for tragedy. Frequent false alarms caused many students to ignore this alarm. The fire department reportedly delayed its response to check the validity of the alarm.

Worst of all, Boland hall had no sprinkler system. As is the case in most jurisdictions, new residence halls must have sprinkler systems, but there were no requirements in New Jersey for retrofitting older buildings.

After the fire, New Jersey’s state legislature introduced a number of bills that would require sprinkler systems in all existing residence halls regardless of when they were constructed.

Two months after the Seton Hall fire, as discussions continued in the legislature, a fraternity house at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania caught fire, killing five students.

That fire widened the focus of New Jersey’s legislative proposals. In addition to residence halls, residential sororities and fraternities were added to the list of facilities that would be required to retrofit with sprinkler systems. In July of 2000, then Governor Christie Whitman signed a bill to that effect on the Seton Hall campus. It was the first such law in the nation.

“The Seton Hall fire was a wake up call,” Hormann says. “It set off a national campus fire-safety movement.”

Despite fire codes calling for fire sprinkler systems in student residence halls, many states and local jurisdictions don’t require retrofitting older student housing. That leaves many residence halls unprotected. According to the NFPA, sprinkler systems protected just 53 percent of the residence halls and barracks that reported fires between 2006 and 2010.

The NFPA also notes that fires in university buildings with no sprinkler system cause damage averaging $23,000 per event. The damage to educational structures protected by sprinklers averages just $9,000.

Other Measures: Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act

While the case for requiring sprinkler systems in all student-housing facilities is strong, it won’t happen until all 50 states require it.

Other measures are enhancing fire safety in student housing, and may eventually lead colleges and universities to retrofit residence halls on their own.

Chief among these other measures is the Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act. This Act was part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act signed by then President George W. Bush in 2008. It took effect during the 2009-2010 academic year.

The Act requires colleges to report fires and fire-safety measures to the U.S. Department of Education and to make those reports available to the public. According to Hormann, the reports must 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 the fire protection equipment, such as alarms and sprinklers, in each on-campus housing unit
  • The number of regular mandatory supervised fire drills
  • Policies regarding fire-safety education and training programs provided to students, faculty, and staff
  • Plans for future improvements in fire safety

“We believe that the components of the law, as intended, will help ensure that America’s college students, their parents, and the public will have uniform, valid, and easy-to-understand information regarding fire safety,” Hormann says.

Not only that. Colleges and universities compete for students. For some institutions, these Right-to-Know reports will become competitive tools. They will not want to publicize that fire safety may be lacking anywhere on campus. Public reporting may even provide an incentive to retrofit on-campus residence halls with sprinkler systems — even if state law doesn’t require it. 

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