Morgantown (W.Va.) Fire Department Chief Mark Caravasos recently reminded several college students that fires are not like the ones shown in the movies. In reality, he said, a burning room is dark and filled with dense smoke. People unable to escape a burning building are more likely to die of smoke inhalation and lack of oxygen then from burns.
For Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 7-13, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) is urging students, parents, landlords and school administrators to be aware of the fire risks and take precautions now to prevent injuries and death from fires on and off campus.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), from the year 2000 to the present, 146 students have died in a combination of off-campus, residence hall and fraternity/sorority fires with the majority of campus-related fatal fires occurring in off-campus housing. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), of those campus-related fire fatalities, 85 percent happened off campus. Today, it is estimated that more than two-thirds of the U.S. student population lives in off-campus housing.
“Unless you have planned a fire escape route out of your dorm, apartment, home or workplace, it will be extremely difficult to see through the darkness, the dense smoke and the flames to escape,” ASSE Fire Protection Practice Specialty Group member Frank Baker, CSP, CFPS, ALCM, said. “Plan and practice an escape route now. Also, make sure that plan includes communicating with your family, friends and co-workers where to meet following a fire to assure that everyone made it to safety.”
The Fire Protection Practice Specialty group believes students must take steps now to plan for and avoid these types of tragedies. The group notes that students who live on campus always should check with the residence life department for policies related to fire prevention. Most of those policies prohibit the use of candles, space heaters, torchiere halogen lamps or halogen bulbs, open heating elements and unapproved cooking appliances. Most colleges and universities have evacuation procedures in place for residence halls’ and for Greek housing that is college owned and/or managed.
According to the NFPA, from 2005-2009, U.S. fire departments responded to an annual average of 3,840 structure fires in dorms, fraternities, sororities and barracks that resulted in $20.9 million in direct property damage. Cooking equipment was the number one cause of these fires followed by intentionally set fire, smoking materials, heating equipment, candles, playing with heating equipment and electrical distribution and lighting equipment.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most fire victims die from smoke or toxic gases, not from burns. Smoke inhalation occurs when one breathes in the products of combustion during a fire, including a mixture of heated particles and gases. To help reduce risk of injury and death, residence halls should be equipped with properly operating self-closing doors that are not propped open; clearly marked exits; corridors that are kept clear and are not blocked; heating and ventilation systems that are routinely inspected and repaired for any deficiencies; and properly operating fire alarm and extinguishing systems, where required.
So what can you do to prevent fires or protect yourself? “Simple actions such as limiting the use of extension cords, and not overloading power strips or outlets can significantly reduce fire risk,” Baker noted. “Cooking safely, avoiding open flames, never leaving cooking unattended and properly discarding smoking materials are just a few additional ways to reduce the risk of fire. Students should know where all exits are located in each building they visit, or live in as you may not be able to leave by the same pathway you normally use.”
For students living off campus, a fire escape plan is just as critical as for those who live in campus dormitories. Fraternity and sorority houses, or off campus residences used by groups of students, often do not have the same construction features to extinguish a fire, or prevent the spread of smoke, so early detection and quick escape are critical to occupant survival. Working smoke detectors are the first line of defense to provide this early warning – so batteries and proper operation should be checked at the beginning of each semester, Baker said.
“Students living in on-campus dormitories or residence halls should follow all emergency evacuation procedures and participate in all fire drills,” Baker said. “Know how to operate a fire extinguisher, manual fire alarms and ensure that smoke detectors are not disabled.“
To help plan, check out ASSE’s three fire safety tips fact sheets on How to Prevent On/Off Campus Fires, Fire Escape Planning and a Guide for Parents on College Fire Safety.