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Deadly On and Off-Campus Fires Can Be Avoided, American Society of Safety Engineers Say


DES PLAINES, Ill., July 21 -- Each year on and off-campus fires take the lives of many students, cause millions of dollars in property damage, injuries and grief to victims’ families, friends and classmates. As students move into college dorms, off-campus housing or sorority/fraternity houses for the new school year, the American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) Fire Protection Branch urges students and parents to arm themselves with fire prevention knowledge to avoid further tragedies.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration the top causes of college campus fires are arson, cooking, smoking, open flames, electrical distribution and appliances. Drinking alcohol contributes to the problem. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services half the adults who die in fires have high blood alcohol counts and alcoholic burn victims had a mortality rate three times that of nonalcoholic victims. Drinking alcohol increases the chance of falling asleep while smoking and greatly reduces one’s ability to detect and respond to a fire and safely escape.

“These lives can be saved. As ASSE is an organization committed to protecting people, property and the environment, we are urging students, parents and college administrators to recognize this is a safety and health risk that can be fixed,” ASSE President Jack H. Dobson said today. “If we can reduce the chance of fires in hospitals and nursing homes, we can do the same with dormitories and off-campus student housing.”

There have been several on and off-campus fire tragedies over the years. The Center for Campus Fire Safety notes that in 2000 a fire that took the lives of three Seton Hall University students began at 4:30 a.m. in upholstered furniture in the common area on the third floor of a dorm; in April, 2005 an early morning off- campus fire, considered now to be arson, took the life of a University of Maryland student and critically injured another who escaped from a second-story window suffering burn and fall injuries as well as smoke inhalation; and, in 2003 five Ohio State University students were killed from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning in an early morning off-campus house fire -- officials reported they died while trying to escape and arson appeared to be the cause. In 1996 a fire on Mother’s Day in the Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, killed five college juniors and injured three other students.

The top cause of fire-related death is smoke inhalation, according to the medical community. Smoke inhalation occurs when one breathes in the products of combustion during a fire. Combustion results from the rapid breakdown of a substance by heat, burning. Smoke is a mixture of heated particles and gases. It is tough to predict the exact composition of smoke produced by a fire since the products being burned, the temperature of the fire, and the amount of oxygen available to the fire all make a difference in the type of smoke produced. “Unlike the typical office building, dormitories are considered to be residential due to the fact that they provide sleeping accommodations,” Dobson continued. “Hence, facility managers and school faculty should be aware of this as many of their buildings are very old and need their safety features updated.” When reviewing student residences, facility managers should make sure that properly operating doors with self-closers are not propped open; portable fire extinguishers are in place and ready to use; fire exit signs are lit and visible, corridors are kept clear and are not blocked with storage, bicycles, etc; all heating and ventilation systems are routinely inspected and repaired for any deficiencies since improperly maintained equipment can cause a fire; and, all fire alarm systems are audible and visible. Automatic sprinkler systems are the best defense against fires in resident halls and off campus housing.

Fifty-six percent of injuries involving fire occur while students try to suppress the fire, 24 percent occur while the student is sleeping, and 16 percent occur while escaping from a fire. The majority of dorm fires occur between September and May with the majority occurring in February.

These tragedies can be avoided by developing a fire escape plan; having and knowing how to work fire extinguishers, escape ladders, fire alarms and detectors; not overloading extension cords, power strips or outlets; cooking safely; not using candles; not smoking; knowing what to do when a fire hits and much, much more. To help, the ASSE Fire Prevention Branch has developed seven free fire safety tip sheets on:

(1) College Fires: Statistics and Causes;

(2) How to Prevent On- and Off - Campus Fires;

(3) Fire Escape Planning: What to do in case of a Fire;

(4) Fire Safety Equipment for Off-Campus and Greek Housing;

(5) Recent College Fires/Tragedies;

(6) Parents Guide, Questions to Ask; and,

(7) College Fires: Key Safety Resources.

For copies of the ASSE Fire Safety Tips contact ASSE customer service at 847-699-2929 or Founded in 1911, ASSE is the oldest and largest professional safety society and is dedicated to protecting people, property and the environment. Additional information is at



For more information the media can contact: Chicago -- Terry Grisim, CSP, ASSE member -- 630-279-9499;; College Park, MD -- Maureen M. Kotlas, CSP, ASSE member and director of the University of Maryland’s Department of Environmental Safety, 301-405-3099,; Hunt Valley, MD -- Charles W. Brandt II, MS, CFPS, CBCP, ASSE member and AVP, Risk Control Consultant for Hilb, Rogal & Hobbs, 410- 584-8616,; Blacksburg, VA -- Sandra F. Kulik, CSP, CFPS, ASSE member and fire safety engineer, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 540-231-9198,; Auburn, AL -- Dr. Jerry Davis, CPE, CSP, ASSE member and research assistant professor in Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at Auburn University, 334-844- 1411; Auburn, AL -- Rani Muhdi, ASSE member and graduate student, Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering in the Occupational Safety and Ergonomics Program at Auburn University, 334-844-1415; Big Rapids, MI -- Mike McKay, CSHM, Safety Coordinator for Ferris State University, 231-591-2147; Boston, MA -- Remi Fleutte, ASSE member and Health and Safety Manager for Boston University, 617-353-4094; College Station, TX - Kim J. Johnson, CSP, CFPS, Texas A&M University -- Texas Engineering Extension Service, 817-329-1283; Oklahoma City, OK -- Michael Messner, ASSE member, Loss Control Consultant -- Union Standard Insurance Group, 405-831-5250.


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