Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2016.

Safe House

To combat the problem of fires in off-campus student housing, NFPA is partnering with other advocacy efforts to raise awareness and develop life-saving resources.

BY JESSE ROMAN

THIS PAST LABOR DAY WEEKEND, Boston’s streets were choked with moving trucks as 250,000 college students prepared to return to school. As is the case every year, tens of thousands of those students, seeking lower costs and greater independence, forego college dorms to move into off-campus apartments.

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In Boston and many other markets around the country, that can often mean living in squalid, cramped conditions, “where doors don’t lock or windows don’t close, where heat doesn’t work or it won’t ever stop, where rodents and pests are daily visitors, where bedrooms are crammed illegally into dingy basements or into fire-trap attic apartments.” The description comes from “Shadow Campus,” a 2014 investigative series by The Boston Globe that was launched after two residential fires on the same Boston street in consecutive years left one Boston University student dead and another in a coma.

Boston’s off-campus student housing challenge is part of a larger national problem. In a report released this year, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) found that, from 2000–2015, there were 85 fatal fires involving college students, resulting in 118 deaths. Of those fires, 94 percent took place in off-campus residences. There hasn’t been a fatal fire in an on-campus college dormitory—most of which are sprinklered and include operating smoke alarms—in more than a decade.

The reason for the tilted statistics, the report concludes, is a disparity in oversight and control. Colleges have control over building maintenance and fire systems. Colleges can bar students from smoking and drinking in the residences and ban fire-prone items such as hot plates, space heaters, and halogen lights. No such rules apply in many off-campus apartments, where less scrupulous landlords can be more interested in cash flow than in investing in safety features or upkeep. Meanwhile, students and parents are often too preoccupied with other details of starting a new school year to consider crucial safety aspects of their new living quarters, such as whether their apartments have working smoke alarms and two ways out in case of an emergency.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm—kids are going out on their own for the first time, and parents are trying to give them a little freedom, even as they want to keep them safe,” said Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of outreach and advocacy.

As studies continue to show that the biggest fire dangers are in off-campus housing, safety organizations have shifted their efforts in that direction over the last couple of years, Carli said. Numerous outreach initiatives and campaigns aimed at parents and students are now underway, with more being developed each year. Many groups, including NFPA, USFA, Campus Firewatch, The Center for Campus Safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and other advocacy groups—some forming in the aftermath of fatal fires—have developed materials separately and together. The messages are spread through traditional and social media, campus safety officials, local fire departments, contests, videos, and more. NFPA has a webpage dedicated to campus fire safety, with tips, fact sheets, checklists, and more.

Every bit helps. “A big part of the solution is education,” Carli said, “and the more voices that are lent to the issue, the more awareness there is.”

In January, Campus Firewatch sent a letter, co-signed by parents who have lost children in college-related fires, to governors in all 50 states, urging them to proclaim September College Fire Safety Month. Last year, 34 states issued the proclamations.

Here are a few of the potentially life-saving resources on off-campus housing safety available to parents, students, colleges, and public safety agencies:

See It Before You Sign It Campaign
Developed by Campus Firewatch, this is a national campaign aimed at parents to highlight the importance of actually visiting and seeing their child’s living arrangement before signing or co-signing a lease. NFPA, USFA, Campus Firewatch, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission teamed up on the project. The organizations have also developed checklists to help parents and students remember what they should look for when visiting a prospective apartment, including the condition of the stove, alarms, and exits. For information, visit the campaign website.

Cooking Fire Safety Quiz/Sweepstakes
NFPA and the Center for Campus Fire Safety are jointly hosting a quiz/sweepstakes for college students beginning September 1 centered on cooking fire safety. The USFA report found that 7 percent of fatal fires involving college students started from cooking. Significantly, it also found that college students taking the batteries out of smoke alarms while cooking, then failing to replace them, was a “common theme” in the fatal fires studied. Students who take an eight-question quiz at the contest website will be entered to win one of two $500 American Express gift cards. A video, rules, and more information on the quiz/sweepstakes are also available at the website.

The Best Roommates Evah! Campaign
This summer, NFPA hosted a meeting with Massachusetts firefighters—detailed in the “Outreach” column, “Off Campus Conundrum,” on page 20—that resulted in a campaign called “The Best Roommates Evah!,” where the roomies in question are working smoke alarms and having two ways out. The program includes a plethora of resources available to fire educators, college residential advisors (RAs), and college health and safety officials to help them educate students and their parents about fire safe housing on and off campus. The program is aimed at Massachusetts college students this fall, but could be rolled out nationwide next year. Details are available online.

Michael H. Minger Foundation
Founded by a grieving mother after her son was killed in an off-campus fire at Murray State University in Kentucky, the Minger Foundation offers a number of resources, including a series of short videos of students giving fire safety messages; videos and guides on fire safety for students with disabilities; a series of posters and videos for RAs on teaching fire safety; and materials on how to develop a program where students conduct home safety visits alongside fire departments. Details are online.

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Darryl Bautista/Poughkeepsie Journal