Several years ago, a speaker at a conference predicted that, in a lifetime, the lion's share of college education would be transferred to distance learning programs, and the physical size of brick-and-mortar campuses would be reduced substantially. While distance learning has progressed since then, the capability of brick-and-mortar campuses as the primary venue of higher education remains, for now, unchallenged. Nationwide, campus physical plants continue to grow with the addition of new laboratories, dormitories, classrooms, stadiums and many other types of buildings.

It is safe to assume that, for the foreseeable future, the brick-and-mortar campuses are here to stay, along with their rewards and challenges. The diverse and complex facilities and uses, in addition to the unique institutional politics of a college campus, create unique challenges to facilities managers. It is their goal is to create and maintain a physical environment that supports the institution's needs and objectives. Campus fire safety is critical to the facilities managers' overall goal.


Similar to nearly all other fire-safety programs, the fire-safety objectives of a college campus can be simplified as a system dedicated to the following goals: Protection of people, property and continuity of facilities operations. Based on the Fire Safety Concepts Tree,1 the stated fire-safety objectives can be accomplished if one could "prevent ignition" or "manage fire impact" in a manner that met the stated fire-safety objectives.


However, for all practical purposes, it is not possible to "prevent ignition" altogether. Nor is it possible to guarantee that the fire impact can be managed in a manner that meets the stated fire safety objectives. Therefore, it is imperative to accomplish as much of "prevent ignition" and "manage fire impact" branches as feasible.


This article discusses the challenges that facilities managers face in accomplishing the fire-safety objectives stated above, i.e., protection of people and property, and maintaining continuity of facilities operations. The challenges will be listed under two main categories, "fire (ignition) prevention" and "managing fire impact."



Identify and Address Causes of Ignition in Off-Campus Housing Facilities.
In his testimony to the Pennsylvania State Legislature Labor Relations Committee, Ed Comeau, then director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, indicated that 80 percent of all fatalities related to campuses occur in houses and apartments off-campus. He cited lack of automatic fire sprinklers, impaired judgment from alcohol consumption, smoking and disabled smoke detectors as the common threads in many student-housing fire fatalities.2


Current statistics on student-housing fatalities are available on the Center for Campus Fire Safety Web page: There are several factors that contribute to the 4:1 fatality ratio between off-campus and on-campus housing fires: Nearly two-third of students live off-campus; students living off-campus are very difficult to reach with regard to fire-safety education and training; the off-campus facilities are less likely to have adequate fire/smoke detection and alarm systems, and far less likely to have automatic fire sprinklers; the students are not supervised by campus authorities or their representatives; and the use of alcohol is more prevalent among students living off-campus.2


College administrators should be aware that the tragic event of a student death in a fire, even off-campus, will substantially affect the reputation of their campus and may reduce the prospective parents' willingness to consider the affected school for their children's education. Therefore, it is imperative for campus administrators to find the means, e.g., working with city officials, to ensure that off-campus student housing is at or above code requirements and as safe as feasible. An inspection and certification (with periodic recertification) are needed for off-campus housing.


Identify and Address Causes of Ignition in Campus Housing Facilities.
While the majority of student housing fires occur off-campus, campus residential facilities have a relatively high share of on-campus fires across colleges and universities. In general, the risk to life in all types of residential facilities is higher, partly because sleeping occupants will have a delayed response to alarms.

In comparison with off-campus and Greek housing, this risk is reduced in dormitories because of the presence of well-maintained fire-detection and alarm systems, a higher probability for the presence of fire suppression systems and close campus supervision of the facilities.


Altogether, from 1999 to 2002, 75 percent of fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and similar occupancies were caused by cooking (43 percent), arson/intentional (18 percent), smoking materials(eight percent) and use of candles and similar open-flame devices (six percent).3 As these statistics indicate, college students may not fully appreciate the importance of fire safety and the consequences of unsafe practices or risky behaviors.4, 5


An ongoing training and enforcement structure is necessary in order to address the major causes of residence hall fires. The program should also train the students adequately so that they are well aware of fire hazards and risks as they move to off-campus housing units where fire risks are far higher than that of on-campus housing.


A very desirable condition is when the campus is provided with competent and dedicated local/city fire department personnel who will assist in providing fire-safety training to the students. Otherwise, a substantial annual budget is needed to establish a useful and effective in-house training program.


Identify and Address Causes of Ignition in Greek Housing Facilities.
Greek housing can be on- or off-campus. However, the ignition potential in Greek housing may be higher than campus residence halls partly because of the presence of more ignition hazards such as kitchen appliances, poor housekeeping, a higher probability of risky behavior and, in some cases, a lack of adequate campus supervision.


Fraternities carry the majority of the Greek housing fire problems. There have been more fire fatalities in fraternities than in sororities.6 The Greek housing fire-safety issues should be included in the overall strategies for the on-campus and off-campus fire prevention programs.


Identify and Address Causes of Ignition in Academic Campus Facilities.
Academic campus facilities present unique fire-safety challenges. For example, use of prohibited items such as candles, halogen lights, cigarettes, hot plates near combustibles; improper use or storage of lawn mowers and similar equipment; and unauthorized use and storage of BBQ grills substantially increase the probability of ignition in academic buildings.


Additionally, many faculty and staff office areas, and faculty and student lounge areas contain kitchenettes with small heat-producing appliances such as toasters and coffee makers. The assignment of responsibility for these small appliances, e.g., upkeep and unplugging at the end of each day, may not be well-established. A training, inspection and enforcement system is needed to reduce the risk of ignition sources in academic buildings.


Identify and Address Causes of Ignition in High-Hazard Laboratories.
High-hazard laboratories represent conventional campus occupancies with high ignition potential. Several examples of ignition sources in laboratories include chemical, electrical and mechanical heat sources. Causes of ignition in laboratories include improper installation of laboratory systems including electrical systems, fume hoods and their associated controls; fuel gas piping; and improper or unsupervised use of the laboratory.


Well-designed and properly used laboratories help to reduce the inherent ignition potential to the expected levels. Actions need to be taken to ensure safe design, construction and use of chemical laboratories. Such actions include:

  1. Ensuring compliance with the requirements of applicable codes, including NFPA 45,7 and the adopted building, fire, electrical, plumbing and mechanical codes.
  2. Ensuring proper design, installation and use of fume hoods, e.g., through review of design documents, shop drawing reviews, inspections, commissioning of new installations and routine inspection of the facilities.
  3. Prohibiting the use of hot plates and other heat-producing devices inside fume hoods or in other parts of the laboratory when any potential for the presence of flammable vapors or other sources of fuel exists.
  4. Directing laboratory proctors and users not to leave experiments, hotplates, pressure vessels, etc., running unattended, particularly where there is potential for unwanted reactions, overheating or ignition.
  5. Limiting the volume of flammable and combustible materials inside and underneath the hood by storing excess chemicals in approved cabinets.
  6. Keeping flammable reagents and gases away from heat and ignition sources.
  7. Using listed cabinets to store chemicals such as flammable liquids and acids.
  8. Separating incompatible chemicals, e.g., oxidizers, from other material.
  9. Providing secondary containment for all hazardous and regulated liquid chemical containers, flasks, beakers and other vessels. Segregating incompatible materials (such as flammables and oxidizers) into different secondary containment trays to prevent undesired reactions.
  10. Utilizing scaled-down experiments.
  11. Reducing the amount of stored chemicals to the lowest degree possible.
  12. Providing adequate and continuous training, and practice drills for lab personnel and students.
  13. Ensuring continuous supervision of all experiments.
  14. Directing lab proctors and users to inspect the laboratory to identify any potential fire hazards before leaving at the end of each day.
  15. Directing proctors and users to label containers, flasks, beakers and other vessels to identify contents. This will help prevent confusion and possible experimental mistakes. It will also provide critical information to emergency responders when laboratory personnel are not around.
  16. Directing lab proctors and users to establish, write and implement standard operating procedures for conducting experiments and research operations.
  17. Directing lab proctors and users to reduce clutter and to keep most of the hood surface (footprint) clear. This will improve airflow and make it easier to work inside the hood without accidentally overturning chemical containers.
  18. Directing lab proctors and users to replace glassware, tubing and other equipment that has defects, leaks or broken components.
  19. Directing lab proctors and users to use and maintain vapor traps with solvent distillations.
  20. Directing lab proctors and users to ensure that apparatus is stable, i.e., secured from tipping or falling.

Identify and Address Housekeeping and Clutter Issues, Particularly in Stairwells, Corridors and Mechanical Rooms.
One of the ongoing challenges in academic buildings is housekeeping, particularly with regard to the storage and/or display of combustibles in mechanical rooms, corridors and stairwells. Several factors contribute to this undesirable and hazardous practice in campus buildings.


Clutter and unauthorized storage are normally caused by lack of adequate storage space, high occupant density in buildings, a lack of understanding of the serious fire hazards created by improper storage of combustibles and inadequate campus resources to establish and implement a routine training, inspection and enforcement program.


Another source of such fuels is the display of combustible items such as installation of bulletin boards or newspaper racks in enclosed stairwells, art and academic displays in corridors, and holiday decorations. Improper storage of combustibles can be addressed during construction and major renovations or by a routine training, inspection and enforcement program.



In order to manage the impact of a fire, facilities and their systems need to be ready to handle fires that will occur. The following paragraphs expand further on this subject.


Prevent Unauthorized Construction.
Nonresidential facilities on campus present unique fire-safety challenges. Unauthorized construction activities happen quite frequently, often by un-informed individuals. Such activities can adversely affect the fire-safety features of the building including fire barriers, means of egress, fire suppression systems and fire-detection/alarm systems.


A well-advertised construction review, authorization and inspection system should be implemented to ensure that all construction activities, large and small, are reviewed and approved before any construction activity starts. For example, unauthorized IT work, e.g., running wires and conduits in buildings, can penetrate fire rated stairwell shafts and rated corridors. The continuation of such unauthorized construction activities might severely diminish the effectiveness of fire-safety systems in buildings and would cost a substantial sum to fix.


Without a viable construction review, authorization and inspection system, a campus may resemble a collection of disjointed autonomous entities. The chaos that can be created under this scenario could jeopardize the effectiveness of fire-safety systems in buildings and must be prevented.


Upgrade Aging Facilities.
Many of the buildings across U.S. campuses were built decades ago,and some were built more than a century ago. A large number of these facilities still maintain their inherent fire hazards, such as open stairwells, unrated exit corridors, combustible construction, lack of fire suppression and/or lack of adequate fire-detection and alarm system.


The budget needed to upgrade these aging buildings to the levels required by current codes is astronomical. The competing budgetary needs of campus aesthetics, historic preservation, backlogged deferred maintenance, continuous building system maintenance and construction of new facilities will hamper the upgrading of the older buildings. Even with proper planning, it would take years, if not decades, to upgrade these buildings to an acceptable level. The time to start planning and request/secure budgets is now. Federal funding may be available for some for work related to disaster planning for campuses in the United States. Visit for more information for U.S.-based universities.


Provide Fire Sprinklers.
Automatic fire sprinklers are one of the most important fire-safety features in campus facilities, particularly in residential occupancies. The issue of fire sprinklers can be tied to many other, seemingly unrelated, code requirements that the facilities managers can use to obtain funding for fire sprinklers.


For example, for compliance with accessibility requirements, many older buildings across college campuses have been supplied with elevators that can accommodate wheelchair users. The same buildings often have many fire-safety weaknesses, including lack of adequate fire barriers and open or unrated exit stairwells and corridors. The new elevators will facilitate access by the disabled individuals to all floors of a given building.


However, during a fire alarm, these individuals will be unable to exit the building and will experience a far greater level of risk. Areas of rescue assistance may be required to protect the disabled individuals. However, areas of rescue assistance are relatively elaborate and expensive to build, and many upgrades do not include them. Additionally, such areas may not afford adequate protection in older buildings that suffer from many other code violations, such as unenclosed exit stairs.


On the other hand, areas of rescue assistance may not be required in fully sprinklered buildings. Facilities managers can successfully use this exception to obtain funding for fire sprinkler installations in their facilities, as has been done at the University of Boulder.


Establish and Implement a Routine Inspection, Testing and Maintenance Program.
Continuous inspection, testing and maintenance of fire suppression systems, fire-detection and alarm systems, and smoke management systems, including fire/smoke dampers, are required by applicable codes. Without this exercise, the fire protection and building systems will not be reliable.


Similarly, passive fire protection systems such as structural fire protection, fire partitions, fire doors, means of egress elements and other fire-safety-related systems such as emergency lighting and exit signs need to be subjected to routine inspection and maintenance. A prevalent code violation across many campuses is the propping of fire doors in an open position by untrained faculty, staff or students. Signage can be very helpful in substantially reducing propped fire door incidents.


Continuous planning, budgeting and execution for the continuous training, inspection, testing and maintenance of these systems are critical.


Address the Fire Safety Issues of High-Population Events.
High-population events such as football games and concerts are routine on many college campuses. While localized fire hazards are present, e.g., concession stands, significant fire hazards are not normally present in such outdoor events. Indoor events are more prone to extensive fire hazards, e.g., pyrotechnic effects or building operations.


Protect Electronic Data-Processing and Storage Facilities.
The dependence of college campuses on electronic data-processing and storage facilities exceeds that of most other services. This dependence on electronic data processing and storage facilities is expanding for the support of both on-campus activities and distance learning centers.


Therefore, the continuity of operations of campuses is related to proper protection and duplication of such storage and processing facilities. Facilities managers need to establish a system that protects electronic data-processing and storage facilities. As a minimum, the system should address fire protection, fire prevention, water-damage prevention, routine back-up/duplication of files and records and storage of the duplicates in separate protected facilities.



Facilities managers need to be aware of and address other fire-safety issues, including conducting routine and effective fire drills, reducing nuisance fire alarms, establishing and implementing fire-system outage procedures, establishing and implementing a hot work permit program, and establishing a working relationship with the city.


To accomplish the above objectives, the commitment of the facilities managers and other campus administrators is paramount.

Acknowledgements:The author would like to thank Ed Comeau for reviewing this article before its publication. Special thanks are also due to Michael Morrison of the University of Colorado at Boulder for contributions towards the list of recommended laboratory fire-safety practices.


Mansour Alipour-fard is with the University of Colorado at Boulder.


1 NFPA 550, Fire Safety Concepts Tree, National Fire Protection on Association, Quincy, MA, 2002.
2 Testimony by Ed Comeau, Director, Center for Campus Fire Safety, Labor Relations Committee, House Bill 781, 2003.
3 Aherns, M., U.S. Fires in Selected Occupancies, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, March 2006.
4 George Washington University, Residence Hall Fire Safety Awareness, George Washington University, 2006,
5 Piper, James, "Learning Lessons in Fire Safety," Building Operating Management, March 2006,
6 Comeau, E. "Campus Fire Safety," Fire Protection Handbook, Nineteenth Ed., National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
7 NFPA 45, Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals, National Fire Protection Association,Quincy, MA, 2004.