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Campus Dorms and Apartment Fire Safety

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Between 2 and 3 million students live in dormitories at colleges and universities. For many of these students, this will be their first time living away from home, meeting new friends, and having new experiences. They are at an age when they may have a sense of invulnerability where nothing bad can happen to them. Unfortunately, tragedy can strike hard at these young men and women.

  • A dormitory fire at Seton Hall University claimed the lives of three freshmen.
  • A fraternity fire at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill killed five students.
  • Double fraternity fire tragedies in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania killed eight young men.
  • Off-campus fire in Berkeley, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Morgantown, West Virginia and New York City, among others, have also killed young men and women preparing to move on with their lives.

Fires in residence halls are of concern because of a large number of people potentially exposed. The types of residence halls found on campus can vary tremendously, from wood-frame renovated houses to high rises.

Greek Housing may be found on-campus or off campus. The local “house” may be owned by the national fraternity organization, rented from a local landlord, or owned by the corporation board (alumni or who are responsible for the physical facilities). Greek housing provides an alternative for students who are seeking to move out of a residence hall. Greek housing can range from renovated wood frame structures to noncombustible structures that were built to the same standards, and even by the same people, as the residence halls. The level of fire protection within these occupancies can vary dramatically, too. In the Greek system, the fire problem clearly lies within the fraternities rather than the sororities. From 1990 to 2000, there was only one fire fatality in a sorority, compared to 23 within fraternities.

From 1994 to 1998, there were an average of 1570 structure fires causing $9.1 million a year in direct damage in dormitories and fraternity and sorority houses. From 1990 to 2000, NFPA has records on 19 fatal incidents that killed 33 people. Eight of these incidents occurred in dormitories, causing the deaths of 10 students. The remaining 11 fires occurred in Greek housing and killed 23 people. These statistics do not include the fires in off campus, non-Greek housing.

The three leading causes of fires in campus residential occupancies are incendiary and suspicious causes, cooking, and smoking. Together, they accounted for three of every five fires in the properties.

Students may not be fully aware of the fire protection features in the buildings they occupy and may inadvertently bypass them. A common violation is doors that are propped open for easier traffic flow. By doing so, they bypass the fire safety features of compartmentation and create an avenue for fire spread from beyond the compartment of origin.

Regardless of the cause, the activation of the building’s fire alarm system is an indication of an emergency and immediate and orderly evacuation of the building is essential. Upon discovering fire or smoke, remain calm. The following steps should be carried out in order, if it is safe to do so, and time permits.

  • Upon discovery of a fire, shout “FIRE” to alert those in your living space.
  • If in doubt, get out! DO NOT FIGHT THE FIRE. As you exit the area, close all doors in the immediate vicinity to help confine the fire in the origin area if possible.
  • Check your door before opening it to make sure it is not hot and the fire is not on the other side. If you encounter smoke when leaving the building, stay as low to the floor as possible.
  • Sound the alarm. If your building is equipped with fire alarm pull stations, pull the handle in the fire alarm box closet to the location of the fire.
  • Dial 911 or report the fire by calling the Emergency Number of your local fire department. This number should be attached to every phone in your building.
  • If the building is not equipped with fire alarm pull station, try to notify as many persons in the area of the emergency if it is safe for you to do so. At a minimum, shout “FIRE” as you exit.
  • Individuals hearing the warning or seeing the fire should begin and orderly evacuation of the apartment.
  • If you become trapped in your room, hang something outside the window such as a sheet, curtain, etc., to warn firefighters you are still there in the building. Place wet towels around the top, sides and bottom of your apartment or room door.
  • Close any remaining doors if possible. This will help to reduce the movement of air to minimize the fire’s spread.
  • If your building hallway is equipped with fire separation doors, make sure they are never blocked to ensure their closure.
  • If your building is equipped with elevators, DO NOT attempt to use them during a fire or fire emergency.
  • When all persons have evacuated the building, they muse remain outside and at a safe and clear distance away from the building. Have a central meeting place where everyone in your designated group to gather and be accounted for. DO NOT RE-ENTER THE BUILDING. Immediately notify firefighting personnel on the scene.

Fire Safety in our College’s and universities across the United States is a growing concern. Even at the Elon Fire Department, we have first hand seen an increase in fire alarms on campus. The number of cooking-related calls has jumped tremendously over the last few years. The Elon Fire Department and Elon University are working together to try and reduce the number of these cooking-related incidents.

Please visit the U.S. Fire administration link to learn more about Campus Fire Safety.