A Spate of Campus Fire Deaths

5 students have died in 3 fires in 2 weeks. College officials react, and Congress weighs action.
April 27, 2005

A dormitory fire killed a student at Southern Adventist University early Tuesday morning, the second blaze since Sunday and the third in 16 days that killed students where they lived. The spate of fatal fires is likely to spur another round of soul searching among college fire safety and housing officials, and has already drawn attention from at least one prominent member of Congress.

At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, a fire broke out near a small kitchen in the women's dorm at Southern Adventist, a Seventh-day Adventist institution in Chattanooga, Tenn. It killed Kelly Weimer, a junior English major from Illinois. That came two days after a Pennsylvania State University senior, Christopher Raspanti, died early Sunday morning in a fire in an off-campus home in State College. And that blaze followed by two weeks a fire in an off-campus home killed three students at Miami University, on April 10.

Miami is the alma mater of U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a member of the Senate's education subcommittee, and members of DeWine's staff met in Columbus, Ohio, last week with campus fire safety officials to discuss whether Congress might play a role in better ensuring the safety of college students. A spokeswoman for DeWine said it was premature to talk about what steps, if any, he might seek to take, but that he is exploring options.

It's not surprising that the incidents have drawn Congressional interest -- lawmakers engaged in a flurry of activity in 2000, after fires two months apart at Seton Hall University and Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania early that year killed three students each. No federal legislation was actually enacted at that time. 

Campus fire safety officials say there's only one truly effective step Congress could take, but one it is probably unlikely to, given the cost and budget realities: providing money to help colleges install sprinklers in their dormitories. (Even in advance of this latest flurry of fires, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, an Ohio Democrat, and several other lawmakers introduced legislation in January to create a pilot program that would give grants to colleges to install sprinklers or other fire prevention devices. The bill has languished.) What college officials fear is more likely would be some additional requirements without any money being provided to accomplish them.

But even the provision of funding for sprinklers would do little to deal with what is probably the most vexing part of this multi-layered problem for colleges, which is how to ensure the safety of students who live in off-campus homes over which colleges have relatively little control.

Although the fire at Southern Adventist is an obvious exception, the vast majority of fires that kill students occur in off-campus houses. Fifty-seven of the 75 people who've died in college fires since 2000 (76 percent) have been killed off campus, while eight have died in dormitories and 10 in fraternities or sororities, according to the Center for Campus Fire Safety.

The prevalence of off-campus fires makes sense, given the great variation in quality of off-campus residences (which range from major apartment buildings with all the amenities to rented rooms over an old garage) and the fact that many colleges have little or no control over where students choose to live once they've left the confines of the institution's own facilities. Three-quarters of the students at Penn State, for example, live in private property, says Bill Mahon, a spokesman for the university.

Norbert W. Dunkel, director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida and publications coordinator of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International, says that some institutions work closely with local fire safety officials to inspect off-campus apartments that seek to rent to students. Such inspections tend to focus on whether the homes or apartments have sprinkler systems or at least smoke detectors (investigators have determined that there were no smoke detectors on the third floor of the home where the Penn State student was killed).

Inspections only do so much, though, says Ed Comeau of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, since a house that passes muster under normal circumstances can be a deathtrap if it's overcrowded with drunken students at a kegger a week later. "You can inspect it on the Monday, but when the party is Thursday night, it's a total different occupancy," he says.

Some universities, including Florida, provide lists of off-campus housing options that have met some minimal standards -- in Florida's case, a voluntary inspection program is operated collaboratively by local officials and the university.

But Florida and other colleges that go this route risk opening themselves to legal liability if they are perceived as having approved of or recommended that students rent houses that later turn out to have been unsafe, which is why Florida's list contains a clearly stated warning that the university "disclaims giving any guarantees, warrantees, or any other representation that the properties are safe or recommended.... Students living off-campus must make their own individual and personal choices with regard to the selection of living accommodations."

Ann Franke, vice president for national issues and chief knowledge officer at United Educators, which provides insurance to more than 1,000 colleges, says some institutions are also struggling with their responsibilities for housing they own off their campuses. The institutions may treat the properties more at arms' length, because the students who live in them may be older and "out of sight, out of mind," but the colleges are likely to be just as responsibly legally if the worst happens.

The clearest-cut situation for colleges is at their own dormitories and other residences, but that doesn't mean those facilities present no risks or problems. Colleges face few problems with dorms they're building in the current facilities boom or those they've built in the last decade or so, which are almost certain to have smoke alarms and sprinklers. And they are likely to have made the necessary upgrades and investments in any historic buildings on their campuses.

But for most colleges, the vast majority of dorms and living areas were built in the 1950s and 1960s and often do not have sprinklers. Putting them in can be an expensive job, and the big question, says Dunkel, is "whether it is worth razing these bldgs and building something new and contemporary, or investing a lot of money to reconfigure the old ones." 

Penn State is about halfway through a $50 million project to install sprinklers in all its residence halls, says Mahon -- the state is one of just a handful that have imposed such a requirement. But colleges in the many other states that don't insist on sprinklers will eventually have to add them, Dunkel says. Given what's at stake, "doing nothing is not an option."

Installing sprinklers (or building new facilities that have them) is obviously not a short-term solution for most colleges. The easiest and most important things colleges can do right away to protect their students, fire safety and legal experts agree, are to pound home the education, even though young students, especially, may feel invulnerable and aren't always receptive, and enforce their rules students who live in campus facilities. 

But what is nerve wracking for college officials -- and for parents of current and potential students -- is that even places that do a good job at those things won't necessarily avoid the wrenching middle-of-the-night phone calls that officials at Penn State, Miami and Southern Adventist have received recently, says Comeau of the campus fire safety center. He notes that the region around Penn State has a very active fire safety agency that aggressively inspects campus fraternities and local residences and educates students about the role of alcohol in campus fires.

On Sunday, hours after the student's death, officials of the Centre Region Code Administration handed out fliers in the neighborhood where the fire occurred, taking advantage, sadly, of what Comeau calls the "teaching moment."

"State College takes this seriously, and I'm impressed by what they do," says Comeau. "And yet still this happens there.

The lesson, he says, is "if it can happen in State College, it can happen anywhere."


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