Every year college and university students experience a growing number of fire-related emergencies. There are several causes for these fires, however most are due to a general lack of knowledge about fire safety and prevention. The United States Fire Administration (USFA) offers these tips to help reduce and prevent the loss of life and property in dormitory and university housing fires.

The Facts

In most cases where fire fatalities occurred on college campuses, alcohol was a factor. There is a strong link between alcohol and fire deaths. In more than 50% of adult fire fatalities, victims were under the influence at the time of the fire. Alcohol abuse often impairs judgment and hampers evacuation efforts. Cooking is the leading cause of fire injuries on college campuses, closely followed by careless smoking and arson.

The Cause

Many factors contribute to the problem of dormitory housing fires. 

      • Improper actions prior to notifying the fire department delays emergency response. 
      • Student apathy is prevalent.
      • Many are unaware that fire is a risk or threat in the environment.
      • Evacuation efforts are hindered since fire alarms are often ignored.
      • Building evacuations are delayed due to lack of preparation and preplanning.
      • Vandalized and improperly maintained smoke alarms and fire alarm systems inhibit early detection of fires.
      • Misuse of cooking appliances, overloaded electrical circuits and extension cords increase the risk of fires.


Safety Precautions

      • Provide students with a program for fire safety and prevention.
      • Teach students how to properly notify the fire department using the 911 system.
      • Install smoke alarms in every dormitory room and every level of housing facilities.
      • Maintain and regularly test smoke alarms and fire alarm systems.
      • Regularly inspect rooms and buildings for fire hazards. Ask your local fire department for assistance.
      • Inspect exit doors and windows and make sure they are working properly.
      • Create and update detailed floor plans of buildings, and make them available to emergency personnel, resident advisors and students.
      • Conduct fire drills and practice escape routes and evacuation plans. Urge students to take each alarm seriously.
      • Make sure that you know two ways to escape in the event of a fire.
      • Do not overload electrical outlets and make sure extension cords are used properly.
      • Learn to properly use and maintain heating and cooking appliances.
      • Only cook where permitted and never leave the area while cooking.

Good Questions to Ask Before Moving in or Signing a Lease.

  • Are working smoke alarms installed? (Preferably in each bedroom, interconnected to sound all if any one detects smoke)
  • Are there at least two ways to exit your bedroom and your building?
  • Do the upper floors of the building have at least two interior stairs, or a fire escape?
  • Is a sprinkler system installed and maintained?
  • Are the existing electrical outlets adequate for all of the appliances and equipment that you are bringing – without the need for extension cords?
  • Are there EXIT signs in the building hallways to indicate accessible escape routes?
  • Does the building have a fire alarm system in-stalled and maintained?
  • Has the buildings heating system been inspected recently (in the last year)?
  • Is the building address clearly posted to allow emergency services to find you quickly in the event of an emergency?
  • Does the sprinkler system or fire alarm system send a signal to the local fire department or campus security?


There are an estimated 3800 university housing fires each year in the Unites States from 2007 to 2009. University housing fires occur most frequently in September and October (2007 – 2009). Most of these fires occur between 5 PM and 10 PM when students are pre-paring or cooking meals.

Whether students live on or off campus they seem to have forgotten the basic messages of fire safety. For most of the students the last fire safety training they received was in grade school. It is important for all students to understand fire risks and know the preventive measures that could save their lives. Parents also play a role in this and their understanding of fire safety is vital when their children are moving into off campus housing.


I would like to thank the Center for Campus Fire Safety and the University of Maryland Fire Marshal’s Office for contributing to this article.








J. Dennis Gentzel, P.E.

Fire Programs Specialist, US Fire Administration


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