Fire safety advocates hope that this Congress will finally mandate that U.S. colleges focus on protecting dormitories and fraternity and sorority houses. The House and Senate passed the Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act in 2000 requiring colleges to provide fire safety data and statistics to students and their parents, but it was included as an amendment in two different education bills passed by each house. That killed any chance of passing the bill during that session.
The 2000 version of the bill was introduced by three New Jersey legislators after a deadly fire at an unsprinklered Seton Hall University dormitory. Since then, according to Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch, 49 more students have died in on- and off-campus housing fires.
NFPA statistics show that an average of 1,800 fires occur in dormitories and Greek housing each year, which means that firefighters respond to residential fires on college campuses somewhere in the United States five times a day. Only 35 percent of dormitories and Greek houses that experience fires have fire sprinkler systems, and that percentage is assuredly lower for off-campus housing, where two-thirds of students live and where more fires ostensibly occur. However, even good data on fire protection at colleges is lacking.
That is where the Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act (H.R. 2683/S. 1385) comes in. Representatives Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), and Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) introduced the 2003 version of the act on July 9 at a press conference on Capitol Hill, which included John Biechman, NFPA's vice president of Government Affairs. The bill amends the Higher Education Act to require disclosure of fire safety information on campuses and a report from the Secretary of Education to Congress on the vulnerability of campus housing and possible solutions. It calls for the same kind of reports schools make to disclose crime statistics and other safety information.
"This legislation is important to students, employees, and parents across the U.S.," Biechman said.
For example, colleges would have to disclose whether each on-campus residence is equipped with fire sprinklers or other fire safety systems and make public statistics showing the number of actual fires and deaths in each residence hall, including fraternities.
Congress is working on a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. As the reauthorization bill moves through both houses, the Pascrell/Wilson/Corzine bills can be attached as an amendment. This means that they will be included in the same bill, rather than different bills, as happened in 2000.
Unlike the College Fire Prevention Act (H.R. 1613/S. 620), also introduced in 2003, which provides federal grants to colleges that install fire sprinklers, the Pascrell bill would not cost the federal treasury a dime. The House version of the College Fire Prevention Act would authorize $100 million a year for five years, while the Senate version would authorize $80 million a year for five years. The colleges would provide a 50 percent match. The legislation, supported by NFPA, was introduced in the House by Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and in the Senate by John Edwards (D-S.C.).
Standing in the way of the Pascrell bill is the stance taken by college and university lobbies. Susan Hattan, consultant to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, says her group shares the concerns of the Pascrell bill.
"But the reports required by the bill would take time and divert university and Department of Education resources," she says. "We have doubts about the cost/benefit tradeoffs."
However, Biechman thinks most colleges already have this data.
"Other than adding a new page to a Web site or a line to an existing Web site, this bill wouldn't cost them very much," he says.
Stephen Barlas is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.