How Fire-Safe Is Your School?

Gail Minger wishes she had asked more questions about fire safety at her son’s school before she sent him off to college. In 1998, Michael Minger, a sophomore, died in a residence hall fire at Murray State University in Kentucky.

“When we visited the campus, we just assumed the residence hall was safe, just like most parents do,” she said. “We assumed it had sprinklers. After the fire, we learned that 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 for other safety code violations.”

Since January 2000, 75 people have died in fires in student housing, according to the Center for Campus Fire Safety, a nonprofit organization that works to improve fire safety on college campuses. Parents may not realize that many residence halls do not have automatic sprinklers.

“Everyone remembers to ask about Internet capabilities and crime statistics at colleges, but too often we forget about fire safety,” said Ed Comeau, director for the Center for Campus Fire Safety. “The truth is that someone who travels is safer than students living in residence halls because many hotels across the nation have automatic fire sprinkler systems and state-of-the-art fire alarm systems. Students should have the same level of safety.”

“Student living means rooms full of books, paper, bedding, curtains, and clothes – and lots of potential fire hazards in a very small area,” said John Drengenberg, manager of consumer affairs at Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit organization that tests products for safety. “In this situation, even the smallest spark can be deadly.”

Schools are not required to make campus fire safety information available to the public, Comeau said. He recommends that parents ask the following questions during campus tours:

* How many fires have occurred on campus in the past five years and how many students have been injured or killed?

* Are residence halls equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system in each room?

* Does every student’s room have a smoke alarm that sends a signal to campus security or the fire department?

* Does the school investigate the alarms before notifying the fire department? This will delay the arrival of the fire department when there is a fire. The fire department should automatically be notified of all alarms.

* Are candles, halogen lamps and smoking prohibited?

* Does the school have policies that require electrical appliances and power strips to be certified as safe and reliable?

* How much fire prevention training does the residence hall staff receive and who provides it?

* What is the school’s disciplinary policy toward students who cause false alarms or fail to evacuate?

* Does the school provide fire extinguisher training for students?

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