At 1:33 a.m. on Saturday, January 21, 2012, about an hour after the four roommates and their three guests had gone to bed, a passerby called 911 to report a fire at the house. When firefighters reached the scene four minutes later, the house, which did not have fire sprinklers, was already fully involved and threatening nearby buildings, Chris Maeder, Fairview Fire District chief, said at a press conference later that day. Four of the occupants had jumped out windows to safety, but three—Block, Fitzsimons, and Dutchess Community College student Kevin Johnson, all 21—were unable to escape. An autopsy report later confirmed that all three students died from smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire was never determined.
Full-time undergraduate students usually live in housing owned by or affiliated with a college, such as dormitories and Greek housing, or in privately owned off-campus housing—the latter posing a far more serious fire threat, according to statistics. According to NFPA data, the annual number of reported fires in college-owned-and-affiliated dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and student barracks increased steadily over the past 30 years; more recently, the number of fires in that category rose from 3,350 in 2003 to 4,160 in 2013, an increase of 24 percent. Despite that rise, the annual average of two deaths per year in college-owned-and-affiliated housing has remained relatively constant since 1980; the annual number of injuries dropped from an average of about 86 per year during the period 1980–1999 to 52 per year during the period 2000–2011, according to NFPA statistics.
Off-campus housing is a different matter. According to the Center for Campus Fire Safety, of the estimated 126 college students who died in housing-related fires between 2000 and October 2014, 107 occurred in fires in off-campus housing. At least four fatal off-campus fires have occurred this year, including deaths in South Dakota, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C.
Advocates are pushing for increased safety measures in both on- and off-campus housing. Shortly after her death, friends and family of Kerry Rose Fitzsimons set up the Kerry Rose Foundation, with the mission of raising awareness of fire safety on college campuses, focusing specifically on the importance of fire sprinklers. In 2013, the New York State Assembly passed the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act, which requires all colleges and universities in New York to provide written fire safety notification to every student residing in a college owned or operated housing facility, including whether the housing is equipped with fire sprinklers. Further, the notification must include information about how students can access the college’s federally mandated campus fire safety report. Partly as a result of the foundation’s work, New York also passed a law in 2014 requiring landlords to inform tenants, including college students, about whether or not their apartments are sprinklered. In June, Connecticut passed a similar law, with Jeffrey Block, Eva Block’s father, a driving force behind the effort.
Now, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, wants to implement New York’s college sprinkler notification rules on a national level. In May 2014, he introduced a federal version of the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Act. Nearly identical to the New York law, the bill would require all colleges and universities in the United States that participate in the Title IX federal aid program to explicitly inform students about whether bedrooms in college-affiliated housing facilities are protected by fire sprinklers. The information would be required in all college materials, such as brochures and websites, that refer to housing amenities. Additionally, colleges would be required to give written notice to students and parents of whether a housing facility has fire sprinklers during the housing selection process, and then notify them again in writing on move-in day. The bill would also require the U.S. Department of Education to aggregate data on the percentage and number of college housing beds in the U.S. protected by sprinklers.
Israel acknowledged that, while the bill does not address safety issues in privately owned off-campus housing, it is a step toward improving fire safety in general wherever college students live. Even incremental steps are difficult to achieve, though; Israel’s sprinkler bill died in committee in the last legislative session, but he plans to reintroduce it in January to coincide with the three-year anniversary of Kerry Rose Fitzsimons’s death.
NFPA Journal spoke with Israel about fires in college housing, what his bill would do, its limitations, and the obstacles it faces.
What have you learned about the state of fire safety in college housing at our nation’s colleges and universities?
I was shocked by the number of deaths in off-campus housing, and surprised by the number of fires in on-campus housing. From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of nearly 4,000 structure fires in dormitories, sororities, fraternities, and barracks per year, according to NFPA. When sprinklers were present in these properties, property damage was 65 percent lower than when no automatic extinguishing equipment was present. It seems to me common sense that student housing disclose whether residents are safe or not when they move in.
A 2013 NFPA report, “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers,” shows that from 2007 to 2011, sprinklers were present in 53 percent of the fires reported in dormitory-type properties. But your proposed law, as with the New York law, stops short of requiring sprinklers in dormitories and other college-owned housing. Why?
Originally, I wanted to propose legislation requiring sprinklers. Unfortunately, we are in an intensely anti-regulatory environment in Washington. I was told that any legislation—particularly with this majority in Congress—that requires the installation of anything would never get a hearing. Additionally, there was some opposition based on the argument that sprinkler installation is a local zoning and building issue. Although I was disappointed with that view, I believe that the common sense alternative is at least giving people the right to know whether or not there are sprinklers in college residences. I don’t see why anybody in Congress on either side of the aisle would object to that minimal standard. Colleges advertise whether a building has washers and dryers, private bathrooms, vending machines—at the very least they should include fire sprinklers.
Why is this transparency so important?
It’s all about the right to know. My two daughters are grown now, but when I sent them to college I just assumed that wherever they lived, they would be safe from a fire. I learned that that assumption is just wrong.
Your proposed bill would also require all colleges and universities to disclose to the Department of Education the number and percentage of campus beds with and without fire sprinklers. The Department would then aggregate that data and publish it. What do you hope this will accomplish?
Data helps drive policy. If we know that a particular college was able to get 100 percent of beds covered by sprinklers, it will encourage other colleges to do the same.
The Marist fire that killed Kerry Rose happened in an off-campus apartment not owned by the college. This proposed law doesn’t address those properties. Are there any efforts underway that would?
No. Those are some of the challenges—the law would not apply to private, off-campus housing with no connection to the college, and we can’t prevent students from renting that kind of housing. But we have to start somewhere. My original intent was to require sprinklers for any and all housing used by students, and that was received with intense opposition. My compromise is to require transparency [in college-affiliated housing], and unfortunately even that has been met with some level of opposition. But I’m going to keep plugging away at a pragmatic solution to this problem.
You introduced the Kerry Rose Act last session in May 2014 and it was referred to the House subcommittee on High Education and Workforce Training. No action was taken then. Are you optimistic that the bill will fare better this time?
It is up in the air, but the more we educate my colleagues, the exponentially greater the chances are that the bill will be passed. Part of the problem, I believe, is that many of my colleagues have this assumption that when you go to college, the housing has sprinklers. When I talk to my colleagues and tell them they are wrong, they are very surprised. So we need to do a much better job at educating Congress on this issue, which will lead to much broader support for the bill and ultimately its passage. To me, this is a no brainer. [The bill] doesn’t require any reconstruction or new infrastructure—it just requires common sense, and even that has been greeted with some level of opposition.
From your perspective as a member of Congress, how can sprinkler advocates most effectively go about educating lawmakers in Washington about this problem and about the life-saving benefits of fire sprinklers?
I think we have to continue sharing the facts with my colleagues. Many members of Congress have colleges or universities in their district, and they should know the percentage of dormitories or sorority and fraternity housing that don’t have sprinklers protecting their students. Hopefully my bill will help spread the word, but the more students and parents who reach out to their members of Congress on this issue, the more support we will get towards passing this bill and making sure our kids are safe when we send them off to school.