06 – ’07 had highest rate of dorm fire deaths

By Nick Bush

The beginning of the school year brings an avalanche of warnings and cautions for both new and returning students: Do not drink too much; be careful walking alone at night; do not let your grades slip, etc.

However, students hardly ever give the topic of fire safety the thought it deserves.

After the 2006-2007 academic year became the most fatal ever for college campus fire deaths with 20 nationwide, there have been calls for increased fire safety measures.

In late August, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a warning about the warning dangers of fires in college housing such as dormitories, fraternities and sororities.

According to National Fire Protection Association data, the estimated number of fires in campus housing has risen dramatically in recent years, from a low of 1,800 fires in 1998 to 3,300 fires in 2005. From 2000-2005 there were about 400 injuries and 39 deaths.

“Going to college marks an important milestone, and the CPSC doesn’t want that to be marred by a potentially tragic fire,” said acting CPSC chairman Nancy Nord. “Students bring things from home to make dorm life more comfortable, including high-powered electronics and appliances. These items can make life easier but also more dangerous when used improperly or left unsupervised, particularly in small dorm rooms.”

On August 21, the CPSC, U.S. Fire Administration, National Fire Protection Association and the University of Maryland’s fire marshal urged students, parents, administrators and resident assistants to be aware of fire dangers in a joint press conference.

According to the CPSC, fires in college housing are most common during the evening and weekends when students are in their residences. And, while most of the fires are cooking-related (hot plates, microwaves, portable grills, etc.), the majority of fire deaths occur in the bedroom.

The CPSC and NFPA ultimately recommended six main college dorm fire safety tips.

First, students should cook in designated areas only and never leave cooking equipment unattended when in use. Cooking equipment causes 72 percent of dorm fires.

Secondly, most deaths and injuries occur in sleeping areas and are associated with smoking materials like tobacco products, candles and incense. Students should always extinguish flames before leaving the room or going to sleep.

Electrical products, portable heaters and lighting such as halogen lamps are the source of a large number of dorm fires. Students are recommended to keep combustibles away from heat sources and not to overload electrical outlets, extension cords and power strips.

Special care must be taken with holiday and seasonal decorations. Never use combustible materials in the building, and never block access to critical safety devices, such as fire extinguishers or exit doors.

The CPSC also told students to know their building evacuation plan in case something does go wrong and to refrain from ever tampering with or disabling smoke alarms.

According to online newsletter Campus Firewatch, a January 2000 fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey brought much-needed attention to the perils of college fires. The fire began when a common area in a Seton Hall dorm caught fire after two students ignited a banner from a bulletin board. The fire spread silently and quickly to furniture, killing three students and injuring 58 more.

The incident led to tougher laws in New Jersey that mandate sprinkler systems in all dorms, fraternities and sororities.

Layers of old paint on dormitory walls in many cases contribute to their flammability. The Boston Globe reported last month about a Massachusetts company that makes fire-resistant coatings, which is already being used on the UMass Lowell campus.

“Dormitories are repainted every year, and some of these dorms are 20 or 30 or 40 years old, so we’ve got paint that’s built up and is a natural source of fuel for a fire,” said Bob Pliskin, vice president of sales for Bradford Industries. Pliskin went on to note that the company’s PyroTarp paint can cover layers of old paint so they don’t easily turn into fuel for a fire. UMass Lowell has used the paint on many of its new lab buildings and on renovations of older, timber-based buildings.