Campus fire safety has become a fast-growing concern over the past few years with more attention being given by students, parents, administrators, municipal officials and legislators. One of the turning points was the tragic residence hall fire in 2000 at Seton Hall University in New Jersey that killed three freshmen, which was followed exactly eight weeks later by another fire in a fraternity at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania that killed another three students. Even though there had been other serious fires over the years, the Seton Hall fire was a significant "wake-up" call for administrators across the nation.

Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to know how many fires are occurring in student housing on campuses. Up until 2000, the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) had collected data on fires in the occupancy that was classified as "dormitory" ("residence halls" is the preferred term by campus administrators). However, in 2000 a change was made to expand the definition of "dormitory" to include other occupancies such as military barracks, nursing quarters and monasteries. For this reason, the statistics relating to "dormitory" are no longer limited just to college campuses, which is unfortunate because this data used to provide a wealth of information regarding fire incidents.


Starting in 2000, Campus Firewatch began collecting information anecdotally by scanning the wire services on a regular basis. The drawback to this method, versus having fire departments reporting their information through NFIRS, is that the information is not as complete since not all fires are necessarily reported by the media as involving students. In addition, the information gathered is not as detailed as that reported by the fire departments.


However, using this method provided a tremendous benefit in that it identified where the majority of students were dying in fires, and it was not in the residence halls or fraternities - it was in off-campus housing.

Since January 2000, Campus Firewatch has identified 94 campus-related fire fatalities, and almost 80 percent of those deaths have occurred in off-campus houses and apartments.


There are several contributing factors to this finding.

  • According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately one-third of students live on-campus, so a vast majority of the student population is living in these off-campus occupancies.
  • The houses or apartments that the students inhabit tend to be older and not as well-maintained as a residence hall.
  • The buildings may not have all of the life-safety features found in a typical residence hall, such as fire alarms, sprinklers, adequate egress, etc.
  • Often there are no restrictions on the use of candles, smoking, halogen lamps or other ignition sources.
  • Since there is no supervision, students have the ability to have parties and consume alcohol without restrictions.

Campus Firewatch is in the process of gathering more information on these incidents in order to conduct a detailed analysis. However, there are several common factors that have been seen in a number of the identified fire deaths:

  • Off-campus housing.
  • Lack of automatic fire sprinklers.
  • Missing or disabled smoke alarms.
  • Careless disposal of smoking materials.
  • Impaired judgment from alcohol consumption.

When looking at the breakdown of fire deaths, there are several points to keep in mind. Since the incidents and deaths are identified through media reports, the numbers are, in all likelihood, low, especially in off-campus fires. Fire deaths occurring in residence halls and Greek housing tend to be identified by the media as involving students, but fires in off-campus occupancies may not always be properly identified.


Campus Firewatch also includes other occupants that are killed in the fire, even though they may not be students. For example, a fire in Berkeley,CA, in an off-campus house killed the student living there and her parents,who were staying overnight at the house. A gas explosion at Texas A&M in married-student housing killed the daughter and mother of a student, all of whom were living in the apartment.


There are four occupancy types that are used in identifying the location of the fatality. These four have been selected since they encompass where all of the fatal fires have occurred since 2000.

  • Off-campus.
  • Residence hall.
  • Greek housing.
  • Educational.

The off-campus occupancies are any house or apartment that is not under the control of the institution. Generally, this tends to be either an apartment building or a one- or two-family house that is occupied by one or more students.


Residence halls are any building housing students that are under the control of the institution. This could include the typical "dormitory-style" residence hall, married-student housing, graduate-student housing, etc. This classification also includes any third-party residence halls (which are becoming more prevalent on campuses) or houses that are purchased by the school for students to live in.


Greek housing is any building that is occupied by a recognized fraternity or sorority. The ownership on these buildings can vary significantly. In some cases, the building is owned by the national Greek organization; in other cases, it might be rented from a local landlord or owned by a local fraternity organization known as the corporation board, or "corp board."


Due to the restrictions that schools are imposing upon fraternities and sororities in regards to parties, some Greek organizations are renting houses or apartments that are used solely for entertainment. Several fires have occurred in these units.

Educational facilities would be any building owned or operated by the school for educational purposes, such as a classroom building, arts facility, laboratory, etc.


Approach to Fire Safety
The 18- to 24-year- old demographic is a difficult one to reach with fire-safety information. This is, quite simply, not a topic that is important to them as they are heading off to school or moving off-campus. In addition, today's students are bombarded with messages since they are a highly sought-after demographic.


A four-pronged approach is needed to provide a redundant level of fire protection to students:

  • Prevention.
  • Detection.
  • Containment.
  • Suppression.

Of the four components listed, prevention is the one that is probably the most problematic because of the college student demographic.


Fire safety is not something that is big on the "radar screen" of an 18-year-old heading off to school for the first time. It is difficult to make them understand the importance of fire safety and their personal responsibility. Once they move off-campus, it becomes even more difficult because the students are now harder to reach, they are living in unsupervised housing, have more freedom and the physical structure they live in may not be as well-maintained as are residence hall.


The other components of detection, containment and suppression are well-understood by the fire protection engineering community. The difficulty lies in getting these components in place and then ensuring that they are not circumvented or impaired by the students.

At a fraternity at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the smoke detectors on a supervised fire-alarm system were covered with plastic and duct tape when a fire broke out that destroyed the building. The fire chief ordered an immediate inspection,and three other Greek houses were found with the same conditions.


Fire doors held open by wood chocks is probably one of the biggest headaches in a residence hall in regards to containment. Students don't understand the role that a fire door can play in stopping the spread of smoke throughout a building and, instead, view them as an inconvenience.


Suppression? Campus fire safety officials lament the three "Fs" when it comes to sprinklers: freshmen, footballs and frisbees.


Legislative Solutions
So often, following a tragedy, legislation or ordinance changes are proposed to address the conditions that were involved in a fatal fire. In Chapel Hill, NC, Fire Chief Dan Jones had been trying for a number of years to have a local ordinance passed that would require the retrofit installation of sprinklers in Greek housing. He was unsuccessful in convincing the city council until May 1996, when five students were killed in a fraternity fire. Now, all of the fraternities and sororities in Chapel Hill are sprinklered.


In January 2007, Columbia, MO, passed a code amendment that mandated retrofit sprinkler installation in all Greek housing within six years. This change comes almost eight years after a fire that killed a student at the University of Missouri and, ironically, one day after a teenager was injured in a fire that was controlled by a sprinkler. The occupant had come home intoxicated on New Year's Eve. He was lying on a futon smoking when the bedding caught on fire. The apartment's smoke alarm had been disabled, but the building fire alarm system was activated when a sprinkler started discharging water. Unquestionably, the timing and circumstances of this incident were a factor in influencing the city council.


Other communities recognize the danger and implement code changes before a tragedy strikes. Examples of such proactive communities include Boulder, CO; Lawrence, KS; Tempe, AZ; and others that have all have passed legislation calling for the installation of sprinklers and fire alarms in Greek housing and, in some communities, apartment complexes as well.


Education and Awareness
The key to effective fire safety, however, lies in education and awareness among all of the parties involved - students, parents, administrators, enforcement authorities and landlords. It is critical that each of them be aware of their responsibilities in fire safety and that they all work in concert with one another to provide as fire-safe an environment as possible.


Education is critical. So often, fire-safety education stops in about the third or fourth grade. When students are asked, "What should you do if your room catches on fire?," often there is a blank look or a response such as "stop, drop and roll?" What this proves is that the message they heard as children was effective. However, the message did not mature with the audience, and they are unaware of what to do and how they now have personal responsibility when it comes to fire safety.


There are two high-risk groups for fire safety - the very young and the elderly. This leaves a huge demographic in the middle, almost 62 percent of the population, that does not receive fire-safety information on a regular basis, if at all. This "middle demographic" are often the decision-makers and, perhaps more importantly, the taxpayers who fund much of the building and infrastructure.


Tragedies such as The Station nightclub fire where 100 people were killed when they tried to flee the fast-moving fire by going through the front door are often lamented. What is tragic is that there were a total of four exits from the building, but as people are creatures of habit, they will frequently use the exits about which they are familiar. (Admittedly, not all of the exits were code-compliant.) The fault lies with fire-safety professionals for not ensuring that the public is educated to look for a second means of exit whenever they enter a restaurant, a movie theater or a nightclub.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a significant drop in the number of fire deaths across the nation, primarily due to the widespread use of smoke alarms. However, in recent years the number of fire deaths has leveled off, mainly because the market is "saturated" with smoke alarms. Residential fire sprinklers would provide the next significant drop in fire deaths, but realistically, it is going to be a number of years before they are widely in use. There really isn't anything else on the horizon that will bring about the next quantum drop in fire deaths.


Except Education
According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are approximately 17 million students enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States. This presents an incredible opportunity to educate them about the importance of fire-alarm systems,sprinkler systems, the role of fire doors and other building fire-safety features. This information will not only protect them for the time they are in college, but throughout their lives.


As a result, there is an informed constituency in regards to fire safety. Instead of having to "sell" them on the concept of sprinklers and fire alarms, they are already aware of their importance. How much time and effort are currently expended trying to convince people the value of fire-safety features and designs that exceed the minimum code requirements?


By educating today's students about comprehensive fire safety, the future of fire safety can be significantly impacted. There are 17 million opportunities available.


Ed Comeau is with the Center for Campus Fire Safety, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization