Fire-Safety Talk for the College-Bound
Kids are never too old for “the Fire Chat.”
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2008
From the time our children were very young, my wife and I have made fire safety a priority of family life. That seems to come naturally when one grows up in a fire service family. Our three kids each became as familiar with “the fire chat” as they were with discussions about homework, picking up after themselves, and other “yeah, we know, Dad” subjects.
Fire-safety equipment is equally well known to them. We live in a home protected by smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system, and escape planning and regular drills are part of our family routine. When they were younger, the kids always enjoyed practicing their secondary escape out their first-floor bedroom windows.
So with all this family focus on fire safety, why is it we seem to be more worried about fire as the kids head off to college?
Between 1980 and 2005, when the number of structure fires in the United States declined by more than half, the number of fires in U.S. dormitories went up 3 percent. Tragically, the fires in 2005 took seven lives. The information, compiled by NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, makes it clear that college students are at serious risk from fire.
So when our son went to college two years ago, we started a new kind of fire-safety dialogue. This time, our focus was on individual action. Of course, we’ve always highlighted the importance of personal responsibility, but living in a community structure such as a dorm changes everything. Not only are kids living unsupervised for the first time, but they are also living with other kids whose habits and risky behavior affect their safety from fire.
So for us, the discussions about personal responsibility necessarily must go a lot further than they did under the controlled environment of round-the-clock family life. We talk about everything from the need to evacuate the building if the fire alarm goes off, even if it has gone off in the middle of the night for three nights in a row, to cooking, portable heaters, electricity, and more.
We also discuss the potential need to take an unpopular stand if a roommate is indulging in unsafe practices, such as using lighted candles or abusing fire-safety equipment. We need to know that our kids have the confidence to speak up in defense of their own safety, even at the cost of seeming like a “yahoo” or whatever term they use these days.
No matter how much we talked about fire safety with our kids as they grew up, we were acutely aware that the dynamics would change when they left home. The conversation with a child of eight is very different from the conversation with a young adult of 18.
Lately, we’ve been having the firesafety chat with our older daughter, who is heading into her freshman year this fall. And just to keep us on our toes, our son is transitioning from dorm life to off-campus housing for his junior year, which puts us at yet another juncture. They may be college students and they may be living on their own, but they’re never too old for a new version of the fire-safety chat.
Need help starting a fire-safety dialogue with college kids you know? Visit www.nfpa.organd choose campus and dorm fires from the Fact Sheets section. You can also visit the Center for Campus Fire Safety, which targets this issue at www.campusfiresafety.org. And the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition website, www.homefiresprinkler.org, offers educational resources, including “Sprinkler Smarts” for younger children.
Gary Keith is vice-president of Field Operations and Public Education for NFPA.