The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"To keep oneself safe does not mean to bury oneself."....  ....Seneca.

Commentary of the Day - August 30, 2007: Residence Hall and Fraternity/Sorority House Fires a Growing Threat.

Fire safety probably is the last thing on the minds of parents when they send their sons and daughters off to college.  However, a recent report [1] from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) notes that fires in campus residences are on the rise at the same time that the number of structure fires, in general, is falling.  Over the past three decades structure fires in the United States have declined from just over a million per year to around 500,000 per year thanks to improved building codes, stricter code enforcement, and better construction techniques.  The number of fires in college residence halls, and fraternity and sorority houses declined at a slower rate from 1980 to 1998 (from about 3,200 per year in 1980 to about 1,800 per year in 1998).  However, since 1999 the number of residence hall and fraternity/sorority fires has risen to the 3,300 per year range.  On average seven civilians die and 46 civilians are injured in these fires each year, and they cause some $25 million in direct property damage.

The reason for the increase in the number of residence hall and fraternity/sorority house fires is not fully understood.  There is some speculation that changes in reporting procedures may account for part of the increase.  Another possible reason is the changing configuration of residence halls from dormitory-like accommodations to apartment-style residences with individual cooking facilities.  Indeed, 72% of the reported fires and  37% of civilian injuries were traced to cooking equipment.  Other causes of residence hall and fraternity sorority fires were trash (7%), arson (4%), heating equipment (3%), smoking materials (2%), candles (2%), electrical (2%), miscellaneous (8%).

Though fires in residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses attributed to smoking and the use of lighted candles accounted for only 4% of the fires, they were responsible for 60% of civilian deaths and 35% of civilian injuries.  While only 6% of the reported fires started in bedroom areas, 67% of civilian deaths occurred in fires that started in bedroom areas.

Unfortunately, many residence halls and fraternity/sorority structures are not equipped with automatic sprinklers or other automatic fire suppression systems, and some do not have centrally monitored fire detection and alarm systems.  Those residence halls and fraternity/sorority buildings that do have full-coverage automatic fire suppression systems are far safer than those that do not.  The recent data from the NFPA show that approximately 36% of residence hall and fraternity/sorority fires occurred in structures with full sprinkler coverage.  (Though the percentage of residence halls and fraternity and sorority equipped with automatic fire suppression systems was not given in the report, it probably is close to 36%.)  The deaths per 1,000 fires in these buildings with full sprinkler coverage was 0.0, while the deaths per 1,000 fires in structures without sprinklers was 13.9.  The average loss per fire was $3,800 in structures with sprinklers compared to $35,000 in structures without sprinklers.  Clearly, equipping student residences with full-coverage, automatic fire suppression systems is the single most important step that can be taken to improve the safety of these structures.

The report also noted that residence hall and fraternity/sorority fires occur more frequently at night and on weekends.  This is not very surprising since occupancy is higher at these times.  The higher rate of fires on weekends appears to be correlated with alcohol use.

The clear lesson from the NFPA report is that automatic sprinkler systems save lives and reduce property damage.  All newly constructed college and university student occupancies should include automatic sprinkler systems with alarms that are centrally monitored 24-hours per day.  When major renovations are carried out on these structures, the installation of sprinklers should be required. 

At the very minimum, student residence halls and fraternity/sorority buildings should have modern fire detection and alarm systems that are monitored on a 24-hour basis.  Within the building the audible alarm system should be so loud that it can't be ignored, and the alarm should also trigger strobe lights to alert the hearing impaired.  Any alarm should also generate an immediate response by campus police or security personnel, and the immediate dispatch of at least one piece of fire apparatus.  Because false alarms sometimes are common, some campuses dispatch only security personnel to check on the validity of an alarm before notifying the fire department.  This is a practice that results in unnecessary delay, and should be ended.  The fire department response can be downgraded to routine or cancelled entirely if the alarm is determined to be false.  If the alarm is valid the time saved by the immediate fire department response can be critical.  Even if the alarm was triggered by a minor fire that appears to have been extinguished by the building occupants, it is essential that trained firefighters respond to inspect the location to ensure that the fire is completely out.  (Most fire companies now have thermal imaging equipment to check for hidden extensions of a fire that appears to be out.)

If your son or daughter is planning on attending college in an area where fire protection is provided by a volunteer fire department, don't settle for less than a full-coverage sprinkler system in his or her student residence.  The extra protection is needed to compensate for the longer response times typical of volunteer fire departments.

Don't be shy about asking questions of college or university officials about fire protection in their student residences and fraternity and sorority houses.  If you receive evasive answers, think twice about sending your son or daughter to that school.

[1] U.S. Structure Fires in Dormitories, Fraternities, Sororities, and Barracks.  Jennifer D. Flynn, National Fire Protection Association, August 2007.

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