Colleges need fire safety - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Colleges need fire safety

Nina Brekelmans graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in Arabic Studies. Her studies centered on women’s rights in the Arab world. The 25-year-old planned to travel to the Middle East to research Jordan’s female distance runners and then tragedy struck.

It was a tragic day for the Dupont Circle community in Washington D.C. this summer when Georgetown University graduate Nina Brekelmans perished in a fatal fire at her off-campus apartment. That marked one of four fatal off-campus fires at U.S. colleges in the 2014-2015 academic year. The others were in Bowling Green, KY; Mitchell, SD; and Reading, PA.

Michael Patrick McLoughlin, 24, graduated magna cum laude in 2012 from the University of Maryland with degrees in finance and economics. He also perished in the fire with Nina Brekelmans.

Michael Patrick McLoughlin, 24, graduated magna cum laude in 2012 from the University of Maryland with degrees in finance and economics. He also perished in the fire with Nina Brekelmans.

Students attending U.S. colleges invest an average of $42,419 per year for private universities and $18,943 for public institutions4. American university and college students and their families literally bank on a quality education, but less considered is the safety of the housing that students spend countless hours studying, sleeping and eating in.

Unfortunately many of the 21 million annual U.S. college students live in second-rate housing lacking fire sprinklers, smoke detectors and other critical fire safety technology. In youth, the excitement of having your own first place typically overshadows concern for its safety features.

As parents it’s imperative that we speak up on our children’s behalf, advocating for higher education institutions to raise awareness for campus fire safety.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), firefighters across the nation respond to an average of 3,810 fires at college residence halls and Greek housing each year. The vast majority occurred in off-campus housing.

Since 2000, there have been 170 campus-related fire fatalities, according to Campus Firewatch2. College housing frequently has a higher tenant density, overloaded electrical sockets and overuse of extension cords and halogen lamps.

Only a few states mandate that higher education institutions inform students and parents about their fire safety efforts, such as whether or not college housing is equipped with automatic fire sprinkler systems.

To resolve that on a national level, U.S. Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) has introduced the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act (H.R. 4675) that would require colleges to report the number and percentage of beds protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system.

The legislation comes after the New York State Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act passed in July 2013, named for Kerry Rose Fitzsimons who died in a Marist College off-campus house fire lacking sprinklers in 2012. The Act requires New York colleges to provide written information on fire safety and sprinkler systems to students residing in college-owned or operated housing.

Consequently nearly 1.3 million students attending colleges and universities there are now making more informed housing decisions because of the disclosure whether a university’s student housing facilities are equipped with fire sprinkler systems. It doesn’t guarantee these systems are installed but instead generates increased transparency and awareness of the issue.

The increased use of petroleum-based synthetics in modern furniture3 is a large contributor to today’s fires that burn hotter and faster, reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in just about three minutes compared to about 20 minutes just 25 years ago, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology6.  The data is clear: every second counts.

Few people think they will ever become a victim of a home fire until after they or their family are a statistic. That’s part of the reason that fire safety devices are rarely a priority checklist item when searching for a college apartment or house for our kids to live in, despite their efficiency in reducing the chance of a fire fatality by 80% and property damage by 70%5.

Young adults’ lives still depend on us as parents to act as advocates with a loud, clear voice for safety. It’s time that this issue is addressed not only as a political matter but as an educational effort to the higher education institutions spending four or more years educating our nation’s future generations.

Sources Cited:

1 60 Seconds – The Difference Between Life and Death From a Harmless Flame to a Raging Inferno in Less Than 3 Minutes. National Institute of Technology, 2008. Online Video Clip. Web. 25 Mar. 2015. <https://www.dropbox.com/s/xyvoksarwjmt2vs/flashover_08.wmv?dl=0>.

2 Campus Firewatch. “Campus Fire Safety Information Sheet,” Campus Fire Safety, Belchertown, MA. October 31, 2014. Web. 23 June 2015. <http://www.nist.gov/el/fire_research/fire-071112.cfm>.

3 New York City Fire Department. FDNY Prepares to Test Fire Science and Firefighter Procedureswww.nyc.gov. City of New York, 2 July 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nyc.gov/html/fdny/html/events/2012/070212a.shtml>.

4 College Board. Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector, 2014-15. College Board, 2015. Web. 21 May 2015. <http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-published-undergraduate-charges-sector-2014-15>.

5 Fire Sprinkler Imitative. Making the Case for Home Fire Sprinklers. Fire Sprinkler Initative. Web. 18 June 2015. <http://www.firesprinklerinitiative.org/advocacy-tools/fact-sheets/making-the-case-for-home-fire-sprinklers.aspx>.

6 Bellow, Mark. “Live Fire Tests with FDNY Will Guide Improvements in Fire Department Tactics,” NIST Technical  Beat, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md., July 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nist.gov/el/fire_research/fire-071112.cfm>.


About the author

Patrick Dolan Jr.

Patrick Dolan, Jr. is the President of the 8,000-member Steamfitters Local Union 638. Steamfitters design, install and maintain fire sprinklers; gas, water and steam piping; and heating, ventilation and cooling systems in tens of thousands of high-occupancy commercial, retail and residential buildings. Contact the author.
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