Ask a Firefighter: College presents particular fire hazards

Ask a Firefighter: College presents particular fire hazards


What specific fire prevention and fire safety tips should college students consider?

With young adults off to college, your local firefighters want to encourage students to fully enjoy the entire college experience while remembering that there are specific fire prevention and fire safety tips that should be considered when living in both on-campus and off-campus housing.

According to the United States Fire Administration, there is a strong connection between alcohol and fire deaths. Alcohol intoxication will impair your judgment and hamper your evacuation efforts. You may not even hear the smoke detectors sounding or you may not react to them quickly enough to escape safely. In most cases in which fire fatalities have occurred on college campuses, alcohol was a contributing factor. In fact, approximately 25 percent of all campus fatalities occurred during or just after a party where alcohol was available.

Cooking is the leading cause of fires in campus housing. On average, approximately 3,000 cooking-related fires occur each year in campus housing and unattended cooking is the leading contributing factor.

Surprisingly, the second leading cause of campus fires is arson. More than half of all campus arson fires are in residential buildings and most are set in hallways or common areas. While many of these may start out as pranks, small fires can create big fires very quickly. As tragic examples, seemingly simple pranks such as lighting a poster on fire outside a classroom or tossing firecrackers under a sleeping student’s bed have both resulted in the student deaths.

Here are some specific tips that families should discuss:

Cooking Safety: Eighty five percent of college housing fires are directly related to issues involving cooking. Cooking while impaired and failing to monitor and tend to cooking are common occurrences in collegiate settings. Remember, you should always remain in the same room to monitor your cooking, have a fire extinguisher readily available, and avoid cooking during times when you may be impaired by alcohol or lack of sleep.

Candle Safety: Twenty percent of all college housing fires that occur in in bedrooms are started by candles, even though many colleges have a complete ban on all candles. More than half of all fires started by candles were due to combustible materials being too close to the candle and the most common materials that first ignited were curtains and bedding. Remember, you should never leave a candle unattended and you should always make sure candles are extinguished fully before leaving or going to sleep.

Electrical Safety: Overloaded extension cords, power strips, and outlets are one of the leading causes of fires in college housing. This is especially true in off-campus rental housing where the electrical system in the home may not be designed to handle the power demands of multiple microwave ovens, dorm-sized refrigerators, and personal computers used by the students sharing a home. Remember, you should never piggyback or plug one power strip into another, overload an electrical outlet, run a cord under a rug, or use plug adaptors that defeat the grounding feature of a cord.

Smoking Safety: Fires caused by careless smoking result in more college fatalities than any other ignition source. Most smoking-related fires result from people abandoning or improperly disposing of smoking materials. Remember, if you must smoke, be sure to put it all the way out and dispose of it properly every time. Also, keep in mind that you should not smoke when you are sleepy or intoxicated since your judgment and reactions are impaired.

If there is a fire in your campus housing, never ignore a fire alarm or assume that it is a false alarm. You must leave immediately using the closest available exit, call the fire department from outside, meet your roommates at a prearranged meeting place, and verify that everyone has escaped and is accounted for. Your local firefighters want you to have a fun, safe, educational and enjoyable college experience.

This column was written by Jane Perkins, fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please email her at

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