Campus Fire Safety

On the night July 20th,, 2018, a fire swept through an apartment complex, killing five young people that were students or associated with Texas State University, in San Marcos, TX. Six others were injured, one critically burned, and over 200 people were displaced from their off campus apartments. This was the largest loss of life in a campus related fire since 2005.

With many students and parents preparing to make the move to college over the next few weeks, it is a time to think about many things. The most important thing that will concern most parents is safety. All facets of safety are important, but fire safety is critical as it involves many people.

Fire is a serious threat to a college student’s safety. Unlike crimes or personal attacks that typically only harm one victim, fire usually affects all people living in a residence hall. Fire has no conscience. It does not discriminate or select its victims. You can’t negotiate with it.

Timothy Ryan Assistant Director/Manager of EH&S Office of Public Safety & Emergency Management Ithaca College

Firefighters respond to an average of 3,810 fires in college residence halls and Greek housing each year. Since 2000, campus fires have resulted in 122 fatalities and millions of dollars in property damage. According to FEMA, the vast majority of these fires could have been prevented through awareness and education. If a college student’s most recent fire prevention training was learning to “stop, drop, and roll” in elementary school, then it’s time for a refresher.


Things to Know

There are several things everyone should know in regard to fire safety. Of course there is prevention and what to do in the event of a fire. There are also things to know before you move into a dorm, Greek housing or even off campus housing.

FEMA’s University Housing Fire Report found that fires cause $26 million in property loss annually. Court rulings have also shown more often, than not, that college and universities are not liable for accidents or unsafe actions by students, so having an insurance policy is essential.

Parents and students tend to believe that the parents’ homeowner’s policies protect them, but that is often untrue. Those policies usually have high deductibles or complicated eligibility requirements that exclude certain claims.

Before moving on campus, you should carefully examine your homeowner’s policy. It may be a good idea to take out a separate policy. To find coverage, you should:

  • Inquire as to how much it would cost to make adjustments to your policy.
  • Check with the school. Many colleges and universities offer special policies with registration.
  • Get several quotes for renter’s insurance. A quick online search will bring up a list of companies to call.

More importantly, you should also be knowledgeable about the facility your student will be living.

The Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act is an amendment to the Higher Education Opportunity Act. This amendment serves to increase campus fire safety awareness across the nation, providing students and their families with the fire safety records of colleges/universities. This information provides prospective and current students of the policies, concerns, and fire safety conditions that are present at the institution in which they have applied or are enrolled.

If you do not see this information and statistics, ask for them.

Here are some important questions for STUDENTS and PARENTS to ask:
  1. How many fires have happened on campus in the past year? How many in off-campus housing?
  1. Are residence halls, Greek housing or off-campus housing protected by automatic fire sprinklers?
  1. Does every student’s room have a smoke alarm? If so, does it send a signal to campus security, or to the fire department?
  1. Do you know how many false alarms have occurred in residence halls? False alarms are dangerous on their own in that they can cause students and staff to stop paying attention to the alarms—and that can be a fatal decision.
  1. What are the disciplinary steps the college will take against anyone causing a false alarm, failing to evacuate during an alarm, or tampering with fire safety equipment?
  1. In case of any alarm system activation, is the fire department immediately notified?
  1. What items—and practices—are prohibited in residence halls because of fire safety? Make sure that candles, firepots, and halogen lamps are not permitted, and that smoking is off limits.
  1. What are the school’s policies on permissible and safe electrical appliances such as surge protectors, etc.?
  1. How much fire prevention training does the residence hall staff receive?
  1. How often do students themselves receive fire prevention education?
  1. How often are evacuation drills conducted? There should be at least one per semester.
  1. How often are fire safety inspections of the residence halls and student rooms done? Are the results shared with students and parents?
  1. For off-campus housing, are there working smoke alarms in each bedroom and on each level?
  1. Are there couches or upholstered furniture on the front porch or deck? Many communities have banned these due to fires having started in couches and spread into houses, especially in high fire-risk areas.
  1. Are students and parents aware that setting fires is a serious crime, and can be punishable by fines and time in prison?


Off campus housing checklist


How to Respond to a Fire Alarm

Regardless of what causes a fire, many experts agree that lack of knowledge about fire prevention and safety is the real issue. While most students learned about fire safety in elementary school, they need additional training.

Fire safety experts stress the importance of practicing escape plans in case of fire in a residence hall room. Practice should include trying a blindfold. If at night, with heavy smoke and no lights, you may not be able to see where you are going. You should know by experience how to get out of the building. A fire alarm should never be ignored. Students must get out of the building immediately and stay out until given the direction to come back in.

When a fire occurs students should:

  • “Get low and go” under the smoke to the nearest safe exit, assisting people with mobility impairments
  • Never use the elevator – take the stairs instead
  • Carefully feel a closed door for heat before opening. If it’s hot, find another way out

If trapped in a room:

  • Keep doors closed.
  • Call 911.
  • Put a wet towel under the door to keep out smoke.
  • Open a window and wave a bright cloth or flashlight to signal for help.

Fire Safety Considerations for Students with Disabilities

According to the United States Fire Authority (USFA), practicing proven fire safety precautions increases the chances that people with mobility, sight and hearing disabilities will survive a fire:

Gail Minger founded The Michael H. Minger Foundation after her son died at Murray State University in Kentucky from arson. His non-verbal learning disability contributed to his death. The foundation has worked to advance fire safety awareness through education, legislation and research to ensure all students are safe.

While the reported number of on-campus fires and fatalities are disturbing, for the last decade the numbers have been steadily declining. Off campus housing is still a great concern and parents and students need to be extra vigilant when choosing a rental. With continued awareness in prevention, safety and regulations, the numbers will continue to fall and colleges can be a safer place to live and learn.

College will be challenging for most students. It will also be very stressful for many parents to have their children living away from home. With proper education and planning, parents should feel confident their students are capable of meeting and overcoming whatever challenges they may face in school and in the future.