Gail Minger is an advocate of campus fire safety with good reason. In 1998, her son, Michael, died in a residence hall fire during his sophomore year at a large university in Kentucky. In hindsight, she wishes she had quizzed the university and asked more questions to learn about its policies on fire safety and prevention.
Minger says that when they visited the campus, they just assumed the residence hall was safe. After the fire that killed her son, she says she learned the residence hall had been written up by the fire marshal's office two years in a row for not having sprinklers, as well as other safety code violations.
She's sharing her experience in the hope that other students and their parents take steps to understand the importance of campus fire safety. Figures from the National Fire Protection Association show an average of 1,500 fires occur in residence halls and Greek housing each year. That means firefighters respond to campus fires five times a day somewhere in the United States.
Ed Comeau, director for the Center for Campus Fire Safety, says there are basic questions that parents should ask the person responsible for fire prevention at each school when considering student housing. "The answers to these questions," he says, "can give you an idea of the priority the school places on fire safety."
• How many fires have occurred on campus in the past few years?
• Does every room have a smoke alarm?
• Are the residence halls equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system?
• How much fire prevention training do the staff and resident assistants receive?
• How many false alarms have occurred in the residence halls?
• How often are fire drills conducted?
• What is the school's disciplinary policy against students who cause false alarms or fail to evacuate when an alarm sounds?
Safety experts also recommend that parents encourage their college-bound students to pay attention to fire safety once they've moved into their new residence.
John Drengenberg, manager of Consumer Affairs at Underwriters Laboratories Inc., notes that whether they live in a residence hall, Greek housing or an off-campus apartment, student living areas are overfilled with books, paper, bedding, curtains and clothes that make rooms a fire waiting to happen. In this environment," he says, "even the smallest spark can be deadly."
The safety professionals at UL, a not-for-profit organization that tests products for safety, offer these tips to help keep students safe.
• Look for the UL Mark on any electrical product you use.
• Do not overload extension cords, power strips or outlets.
• Never staple wires or extension cords.
• Be wary of cords and electrical outlets that are too hot to touch.
• Do not connect multiple extension cords together.
• Do not route cords under doors or carpets.
• Use light bulbs with correct wattage for lamps.
• Cook only where rules allow and pay attention.
• Never plug more than one high-wattage appliance into a single outlet.
• Keep surfaces clean of grease.
• Never pour water on a grease fire. Use baking soda.
• Keep an all-purpose fire extinguisher handy.
What if there is a fire?
• Evacuate immediately.
• Call the fire department or 911 when you're out of the building.
• Have an escape plan and know two ways to exit the building from your room.
• Memorize the number of doors to the nearest exit.
Drengenberg says careless smoking, unattended candles and cooking, as well as overloaded extension cords and power outlets, are among the most common causes of fires when students are living so closely together. He also notes that because arson is the number one cause for fires on campuses students not only need to be proactive about fire prevention but be ready to react if a fire alarm sounds.
"Smoke alarms are there to provide you time to escape if a fire occurs," he said. "Students should never disable any smoke alarm or assume any alarm is a prank or false. Whenever an alarm sounds, get out immediately. Fires can spread so quickly that students should understand the difference between safety and tragedy could be just a few minutes, so every second counts."