More emphasis should be placed on protecting off-campus housing
NFPA Journal, May/June 2010
Over the 10-year period from 2000 to 2009, fires in student housing resulted in 136 fire deaths, 114 of which occurred in off-campus housing, according to Campus Firewatch. And the numbers for off-campus housing are probably understated, because such fires are compiled using media reports and not all off-campus fires are necessarily reported as involving students.
Students at many colleges and universities live in off-campus housing that the school does not own or supervise. Such housing often consists of single- or two-family houses designed to accommodate a family of four or five that are now occupied by many more people than houses not originally designed as rental properties can reasonably accommodate. Many of these houses are older properties that lack sufficient wiring capacity for electrical equipment commonly found in campus housing, such as computers, microwave ovens, portable heaters, and air conditioners. And most are not protected by sprinkler systems.
Add to these unfavorable physical conditions careless behavior by the occupants. When students living in off-campus housing invite other students to social events, excessive alcohol consumption is commonplace, resulting in both cognitive and physical impairments. It is not surprising that many victims of fatal off-campus housing fires have elevated blood-alcohol levels. Also commonplace at such events is overcrowding, as many of the invited guests end up sleeping over. Too many people, especially too many people who are unfamiliar with the layout of the house, may add to the problem. The incident commander must consider the possibility that more students than expected may occupy the building, that occupants may be in areas other than normal sleeping quarters, and that occupants may be intoxicated or otherwise impaired.
Overcrowding, increased fire hazards, and careless acts in a dwelling not designed as rental property can result in a severe life hazard in off-campus housing.
The first tactical priority when responding to a fire in off-campus housing is life safety, and rapid extinguishment or fire confinement is usually the best way to save lives. Extinguishing a manageable fire reduces the risk to both firefighters and occupants. Generally, off-campus housing has smaller common areas and more subdivided bedrooms than on-campus dorms, and thus requires a lower rate-of-flow. Proper ventilation is also critical to a successful outcome, as it allows fire crews to advance on the fire and conduct search-and-rescue operations while helping residents self-evacuate. As soon as on-scene staffing permits, search-and-rescue activities should commence.
Life safety is critical at any college or university, but it is especially important in off-campus housing that is not owned or managed by the school. While we continue in our efforts to improve safety at properties managed by colleges and universities, we must also begin placing more emphasis on protecting off-campus housing.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555.