Fire safety is an issue at any gathering place - the mall, church, movie theaters and especially in the home. As young adults prepare to leave for college, parents and administrators think about the well-being of those entering this new living environment. Underage drinking, experimentation with drugs and the crime rate at the school they will attend are all common concerns. Over the last decade, a number of campus tragedies have brought another concern to the forefront: Fire safety. Fire safety on college campus is a multifaceted issue involving the concerns of parents, the attitudes and behaviors of the student population, the social and fiscal responsibilities of college administrators, and the local and state regulations in which the college resides. This article will explore these factors.
The environment in which a student will live is one of the central topics parents raise at admissions interviews and college open houses. How safe are the surrounding neighborhoods? What is the college's approach to drugs and alcohol, and how prevalent is the use? After devastating fires like those at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania and Seton Hall in New Jersey in the early part of 2000, parents have begun to ask with growing anxiety: What about fire safety?
The questions range from broad inquiries about how the campus addresses fire safety to specifics about the number of buildings that have sprinklers and smoke detectors in each bedroom. Parents actively engaged in the day-to-day decisions affecting their child's safety for the past 18 years are taking the next step - leaving their son or daughter on his/her own in a strange environment. These involved parents want to ensure their student's safety. As college administrators work to answer questions and quell parents' anxieties, they try to reinforce that safety in the college environment is a collective process, one that hinges on all involved taking an active role.
At the beginning of each school year, as parents say goodbye and drive home, the student begins to interact in an environment fraught with expectations and new experiences. Peer pressure combines with media depictions of college life seen in movies such as Van Wilder and the now-classic Animal House, resulting in risky behavior and a culture of lowered personal accountability.
College students move through a variety of developmental stages, from a dichotomous view of the world where everything is right or wrong to a self-actualized view where the locus of control comes from within rather than from authority figures such as campus administrators or a campus public safety department.
Unfortunately, as administrators begin to educate students about college expectations and precautions about their new surroundings, they are met with phrases such as "we've heard this all before," "you sound just like my parents" or worse yet, they don't even attend "mandatory" meetings because it just isn't "cool." The attitude is that they don't need the information because it doesn't apply to them; they are invincible, and bad things only happen to other people.
Confronting the "Cry Wolf" Syndrome
Administrators, on the other hand, keep a running tally of the behaviors that have problematic outcomes at best and tragic ones in the worst cases. During the first or second week of the semester, the residence life staff conducts staged fire alarms in the early evening. For those few students who are around, they respond with the pack, leaving the building fairly quickly, grouping outside to talk about how "grade school" it is and making plans for later that night to go out with friends.
As the semester progresses and the "innocent prank" of pulling a false alarm occurs with increasing frequency, administrators are faced with a new problem. The fire alarm goes off at 2:15 in the morning; students, confused and inconvenienced, shuffle out in bare feet with blankets wrapped around them, again to gather outside and complain about being wakened in such a manner.
The rumor passes through the group that someone pulled a prank alarm, shot off a fire extinguisher or was smoking in one of the rooms. They laugh and go back inside when allowed. The third, fourth or fifth time this happens, however, a new emotion kicks in - apathy.
As the residence hall staff goes room to room after campus safety has determined there is no fire, they find scores of students hiding under covers or simply sitting in their rooms. When confronted, these apathetic students pass the blame back to administrators who cannot catch the individual responsible when "everyone knows who it is."
The "crying wolf" issue is one of the largest hurdles administrators face as they work with students' community living attitudes and behaviors. While this apathy is prevalent in the on-campus residence halls, it is further complicated in rental properties off-campus, where the vast majority of college students live.
The Center for Campus Fire Safety reports that between January 2000 and December 15, 2006, 78 percent of fatal campus fires occurred at off-campus locations.1 The trained residence life staff and more-sophisticated fire-safety equipment are the safeguards in on-campus housing, but when this is mixed with student apathy and the less-regulated environments off-campus, the outcome can be tragic.
The cultural expectation is that college is a time to test newfound freedoms and experiment, typically with alcohol and other drugs. The potential severity of consequences combined with the activities associated with this developmental stage makes a lethal combination. Experimentation with drugs and alcohol leads to impaired judgment and can significantly reduce the likelihood that the individual will respond to fire alarms or signals.
Campus smoking bans, restrictive leases banning smoking in off-campus apartments and sensitive fire-safety equipment have prompted some individuals to disable smoke detectors, putting themselves and their community at even greater risk. Again, these issues are further multiplied off-campus where landlords infrequently inspect and the fire-safety equipment is much more basic and accessible.
While apathy is an underlying factor in how students approach their personal safety, administrators find that other careless behavior exacerbates an already-troubling situation. Other fire-safety issues include the casual disposal of cigarettes both inside and around living areas, and a student population just learning to cook on their own.
The environment in which a college students lives is dynamic and fluid in that situations change and people come and go at the drop of a hat. Macaroni and cheese cooking in the microwave or a lit candle in the bedroom can be instantly forgotten when friends stop by unannounced to go out or something happens down the hallway that draws attention away. Again, the situation is further complicated by the lack of accountability by any one person for an area. Sharing living or cooking space with a large number of people decreases the individual sense of responsibility.
On-campus, the approach to fire-safety is a combination of education, training and upgrading of facility fire-safety equipment. Residence life staff and public safety officials trained in fire-safety and evacuation techniques provide education and outreach to on-campus students.
Regular meetings paired with impromptu fire drills help reinforce correct procedures. Nightly inspections of common area fire-safety equipment that includes smoke detectors, pull stations and fire extinguishers help to ensure the proper upkeep and functioning of these devices.
Many colleges have periodic health and safety inspections of individual apartments or rooms to check sprinklers and smoke detectors for tampering and obstruction. These inspections, paired with severe and well-publicized disciplinary outcomes for violations, combine to curtail negative behavior.
Automatic Sprinkler Systems
An effective, yet expensive, approach to fire safety has been the incorporation of automatic fire sprinkler systems into residential facilities. The main question on college campuses is not if to utilize sprinklers, but when to add them.
Pressure to keep tuition, room and board increases to a minimum is complicated by a discerning student who wants a high-quality living environment. Add to this legislative mandates and a safety-concerned public, and the decision becomes a balance of fiscal and market demands.
With pending legislation at both the national and state levels mandating sprinkler systems, administrators have begun to include sprinkler systems in new construction and typically plan to add sprinkler systems to existing buildings during major renovation projects.
Off-Campus Fire Safety
Promoting fire safety off-campus is more sporadic and complicated. The best landlords will attempt to mimic the procedures found on-campus: Going over the location of fire safety equipment with new tenants, posting emergency exit routes and routinely inspecting equipment to make sure that it is functional, up-to-date and tamper-free.
In reality, the vast majority of tenants have never talked with their landlords about fire safety. The Center for Campus Fire Safety reports that a common thread in fatal campus fires is missing or disabled smoke alarms, a common occurrence in off-campus apartments.1 Again, students at this developmental stage view the smoke detector as a tool of management - not there to protect them, but to get them in trouble or be a nuisance.
Unfortunately, many landlords do not understand students' attitudes and view them as "legal adults" and hesitate to make attempts to educate or safeguard. When smoke detectors are present, they are quickly disabled due to cooking mishaps or in preparation for large gatherings where cigarette smoke will fill the air. College administrators are searching for effective solutions to address this potentially tragic combination of student immaturity and lack of a strong off-campus support system.
Town-and-gown collaborations have begun to address the problematic off-campus situation. Local governments and chambers of commerce, realizing the importance of the college student renter to the local economy and rising safety concerns of parents, have begun to institute minimum code standards for rental units, mandating yearly inspections and establishing penalties for those in noncompliance.
Universities have established offices addressing the issues facing off-campus students. These offices offer a place where students can ask questions and raise concerns about landlord practices and the landlord/tenant relationship, find rental information on apartments that have met minimum code standards and get resources on important questions to ask potential landlords and the current tenants.
Some colleges have even gone so far as to partner with city inspectors, fire safety professionals and firefighters to conduct information sessions and workshops for landlords on fire-safety techniques, new code requirements and how to market their apartments to students and parents.
Fire safety is predicated on the combination of useful and effective fire-safety equipment, engaged community members and effective communication of the issues and recommended fire-safety procedures. The college administrator consistently confronts these three areas: Educating an ever-changing student population, ensuring that fire-safety equipment is consistently inspected, and that the equipment is appropriately utilized by a knowledgeable student population.
On-campus residential areas represent a much more controlled and manageable environment as proven by the low number of on-campus fatal campus fires. The off-campus environment represents an ever-increasing and accident-prone situation that demands more resources and out-reach. While the college and university does not have legal liability for what takes place off-campus, it does have the educational and philosophical obligation to reach out to support the student body it has recruited, regardless of where they reside.
Ward W. Caldwell is with Pennsylvania College of Technology.