Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 4, 2018.

Old Foe

Fire remains an ongoing concern—especially in off-campus housing


The fire was in control—not the occupants, not the firefighters. Only the smoke and flames.

That’s how an assistant fire chief in San Marcos, Texas, described a fatal blaze that tore through an apartment complex used mostly by area college students as off-campus housing in the early hours of July 20. “The fire was in control of the building from pretty much top to bottom,” the official told the San Antonio Express-News.

By the time first responders arrived on scene, five people, including college students, had already died in the fire, which ignited at about 4 a.m. in a two-story brick building in the complex. The cause of the blaze was initially unknown. Six other tenants were injured in the incident, some with broken bones from jumping out of a second-floor window. The newspaper described the complex, which lacked fire sprinklers, as a “typical” example of the off-campus housing options that exist near college campuses throughout the country.

According to data from the Center for Campus Fire Safety, which is cited on the NFPA website, over 90 percent of the 92 documented fatal campus fires since 2000 occurred in what’s considered off-campus housing—properties that are not always physically located off of the campus, but aren’t owned or managed by the school—as well as Greek housing, including fraternity or sorority houses. Fewer than 8 percent occurred in on-campus housing, according to the data. Furthermore, on average, 12 percent more people died in off-campus and Greek housing fires than in on-campus fires—an indicator of insufficient regulation of occupant loads in off-campus spaces, fire experts say.

Statistics on the number of off-campus house fires in the U.S.

With no legal authority to regulate what they don’t own, colleges have for decades faced a dilemma in trying to control the problem, said Mike Halligan, who heads Underwriters Laboratories’ Building Inspections division. Before working for UL, Halligan worked in campus fire safety at the University of Utah for 26 years. While some unique efforts are being discussed—such as establishing a third-party safety certification system for landlords of off-campus properties—currently the best solution for addressing the off-campus fire problem is robust public education, he said.

“We know that works, and we know that’s measurable,” Halligan said of fire-safety education for college students planning to live off-campus.

Each year, NFPA partners with organizations including the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the United States Fire Administration to spearhead a national campaign known as “See It Before You Sign It,” which urges college students and their families to inspect off-campus properties, checking for features like smoke alarms and fire sprinklers, before signing a lease. Campaign materials and more information about campus fires in general is available online.