Highschool was a fun and fast four years that has flown by in the blink of an eye. A much-needed summer vacation has come and gone. Now, reality has set in, that time has come to fly the nest and set off for a new journey. College! Don’t fret, the massive undertaking may seem daunting to a college freshman but just think, you are about to embark on your college career where you will have so much freedom. Freedom to cook what ever meal your heart desires, freedom to rock those sweatpants of yours seven days a week, and the freedom to live your live your way. The only thing that can stand in your way is your lack of experience and preparedness should a dangerous situation come to fruition unexpectedly, i.e., a fire in the dorm.
The date is January 1st, 2000, and we are on campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange New Jersey. It is 4:30 am and most of the freshman dorm in Boland Hall is fast asleep. Two of your classmates decide it would be a funny prank to light a banner on fire in the common area of a lounge on the third floor. Little did these two students know, modern construction materials are synthetic and burn faster, hotter, and off gas 200% times more toxic smoke. The plastic banner they set on fire quickly burned and dripped onto a near by couch which in turn started to burn like it was soaked in gasoline. The fire rapidly grew, consuming everything in its path. As a result, the fire was throwing off thick, blinding black smoke. The fire alarm quickly sounded. Unfortunately, the fire alarm sounded often for false alarms which is why a lot of the students that were awakened by the tone decided to disregard it and go back to sleep. Once the student body realized the alarm was for a real incident, there was mass confusion. Some students didn’t know whether to shelter in place, or to make a run for it. The Boland Hall fire that morning claimed the lives of three eighteen-year-old students and injured 58 others. The incident was tragic, but the silver lining was as the result of a prank gone wrong, the Seton Hall fire brought national attention to campus fire safety. The message from the survivors is “Don’t Be Complacent! Know where your exits are and respond to the alarms.” As a result of setting the fire, the two students plead guilty to third degree arson and were sentenced to five years at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Yardville NJ. Since 2000 there have been 92 fatal fires on college campuses and off campus housing. Although it is difficult to manage off campus housing fire protection, on campus fire protection has led lawmakers to push for reform and pass more strict fire protection laws in college dorms. Fire sprinklers are a major part of that change. The response for better fire protection on college campus was adopted Federally which to date has saved many lives because of the 2008 bill that passed, (Higher Education Opportunity Act) which requires schools to report fire safety data and policies every year. As an example of this change, on March 2006 a couch caught fire just after 5am in a lounge in Bohn Hall at Montclair State in NJ which tripped the fire sprinkler and doused the fire. Another example, a faulty electrical cord ignited a fire on a student’s bed at the University of Oklahoma and activated a fire sprinkler which immediately controlled the fire. There are many examples like these where fire sprinklers have saved lives by buying time for the dorm residents to escape safely. As a result of the unwanted outcome of the Seton Hall fire, Congress has reintroduced the Campus Fire Safety Education Act to create a grant program for fire prevention and education programs at colleges. Now as part of the freshman orientation in Boland Hall at Seton Hall University, students learn about the 2000 dorm fire and the resulting polices that came from it.
Don’t let the Seton Hall fire scare you or prevent you from living on campus, learn from it. Campus fire safety is a major knowledge requirement when living out on your own for the first time. The main goal in the event of a fire is always, get out alive. If you get caught in a fire situation, survival is your priority. Always know two ways out of the building and feel the floor on your way out, checking for heat or hot spots. The cardinal rule is if it’s hot, don’t open it or proceed. Instead use your second way out or go to a window and call for help. If it’s cool, stay low and open it slowly while checking for smoke and fire before proceeding any further. Always get out of the building before calling 911. If you pass a fire alarm pull station on the way out while trying to escape, pull the alarm. Keep the fire from spreading by closing the door behind you, and on the way out of the building, knock on doors you’re passing and yell fire in the building. Another key tactic to keep in mind when trying to escape a fire is to get low and crawl on the floor. Thick smoke is as much of a threat as the actual fire. Smoke can make it impossible to see in front of you and the toxic component of the smoke can be deadly in a matter of seconds. Keep in mind heat and smoke rise, meaning the coolest, freshest air will be down near the floor. In the event you cannot escape to the outside the building, it is suggested you shelter in place in your room. Use your cell phone and call for help. Try to get someone’s attention outside your window so someone knows you need rescuing. Close and seal your door to keep smoke out by placing a wet towel on the floor by the door jam. Remember, under no circumstances should you try to search for others during a fire. Do not try to gather your things. You do not have time to do anything but try to escape.
In addition to knowing how to escape a fire, it’s just as important to know how to prevent the fire from starting in the first place. Here are a few tips to follow when living away at college that can prevent a deadly situation from occurring. Practice kitchen fire safety. If a fire starts in your stove, toaster oven or microwave, keep the door closed and unplug the unit until the fire burns out. DO NOT use water on a grease fire – it only makes it worse. If your sleepy or drowsy, don’t cook a meal that requires turning on appliances. In addition to kitchen fire safety, remember to keep exits clear and accessible. There’s not a lot of space in a dorm room but putting items in the pathway of an escape route is not a good idea. When the fire alarm goes off, no matter the time it happens, GET OUT. Fire doubles every 30-60 seconds. In just a matter of minutes an entire room can be filled with fire and smoke. Be choosy where you live on campus. Smoke alarms and fire sprinklers save lives. Respect the smoke detector. Don’t hang things on it or cover it up because it’s annoying when you’re trying to make popcorn. Remember to replace the battery every semester. Use flameless candles. Be “Power Safe”, meaning do not overload the outlets because it is a safe bet, they do not have a surge protector and can be easily overloaded and cause a fire. If your lucky enough to have a washer and dryer in your room, clean out the lint trap after every use. Don’t cover up your lights with things as the light bulb can get hot and ignite what ever decoration you wrapped around the lamp. Lastly, when your done using an appliance, turn it off. These are great tips to keep in mind when visiting schools and making the ultimate decision where you will be living for the next four years. When visiting schools and trying to pick the perfect one, don’t be bashful and ask questions to discern the level of fire safety and preparedness the school has. Late August – September is the worst month(s) for fatal campus related housing fires in the country. Unfortunately, many college students don’t know how quickly a fire can occur.
It is up to you to apply these suggestions and keep a safe living environment when living away from home. Fire prevention starts with you, stay safe and enjoy college.
Fore more safety tips on college fire prevention visit: Center for Campus Fire Safety > Training & Activities > Campus Fire Safety for Students > Share , NFPA – Campus housing