Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on September 1, 2016.

Off-Campus Conundrum

What’s the best way for the fire service to address the problem of fires in off-campus college housing?


IN JULY, a group of fire officials from cities and towns across Massachusetts that have colleges in their communities met at NFPA to discuss the upcoming school year and a perennial challenge: how to start and end the college year without a significant fire tragedy on or around their campuses.

The fears of local fire officials are not without merit. According to “Campus Fire Fatalities in Residential Buildings (2000–2015),” a recent report published by the United States Fire Administration (USFA), there were 85 fatal fires with 118 fatalities in dorms, frats, sororities, and off-campus housing during the 16 academic years examined in the study. Additional facts supported their concerns: nearly all (94 percent) of the fires occurred in off-campus housing; alcohol was a factor in 76 percent of the fires; most fires occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday; and nearly 60 percent of the fires occurred in homes where smoke alarms were either missing or had been tampered with.

These statistics provide important data to inform campaigns aimed at reducing these fires and keeping college kids safe. They lead fire and safety officials to focus on off-campus housing and the lifesaving benefits of smoke alarms and escape planning. This may sound simple, but it can be complicated by the somewhat unique characteristics of those impacted. The target audiences are college-age kids, their parents, and the landlords who rent properties to college students. Most college kids are on their own for the first time, and smoke alarms aren’t usually top-of-mind for them. Parents want to balance letting their children go with telling them what to do, and landlords aren’t always able to keep up with what happens in the house after they hand over the keys.

The group of firefighters that met at NFPA this summer was up to the challenge. The discussion began with an acknowledgment that things are better than they used to be. The number of college-related fires, like fires in general, have declined over the last few decades. More and more college dorms are sprinklered, codes are enforced, and fire safety is presented to students on a regular basis. Nevertheless, the thought of an after-midnight fire ripping through an overcrowded off-campus house jammed with partying freshmen is never far from their minds.

The group came up with a range of strategies for addressing these concerns, from highlighting model landlords who take fire safety seriously to some old favorites such as including a pizza with every fire service outreach effort—you can never go wrong with pizza as an incentive for anything involving college students. They noted that great resources exist from groups like NFPA, USFA, the Center for Campus Fire Safety, Campus Firewatch, The Michael H. Minger Foundation, and others. They also came away with a plan to spearhead a Massachusetts-specific campaign centered around smoke alarms and escape plans, and I’m sure they won’t mind if others borrow it. Make this school year a fire-safe one.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of outreach and advocacy for NFPA. Top Photograph: Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images