Students are returning to universities across the country for the fall semester. Some may even be heading to a college campus for the first time. This means many young adults will have their first experience of living away from home in campus dorms, apartments, co-ops, fraternity and sorority houses or other off-campus residences.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, from January 2000 to May 2015 there were 85 fatal fires in off-campus housing, which resulted in 118 fatalities. This averages to approximately seven deaths per school year.

Freshman orientation and other campus safety initiatives do their best to prepare students on dangers, but many students don’t have proper safety training or consideration for fire incidents. Tragic fire related deaths are preventable with fire training and safety knowledge.

What Parents Need to Know

2016 was the first year since 2000 that no college-housing fire deaths occurred.

2016 was the first year since 2000 that no college-housing fire deaths occurred. This is encouraging, and it means many of the major pushes to prevent incidents across the country are working. However, it’s important for parents, students, and campus staff to remain vigilant.

Here’s what the numbers tell us:

  • 94% of those fatal fires occurred in off-campus homes
  • 29% were caused by smoking, the leading cause of fires
  • Alcohol was a factor in 76% of fatal campus fires
  • 58% of the fatal fires had either missing or tampered smoke alarms (disconnected or removed batteries)
  • 67% of victims were male

Why do Incidents Happen?

Drugs and alcohol usually play a factor.

Incidents often occur because of a few reasons: students don’t have sufficient training, so they don’t know how to prevent an incident and can’t spot danger zones, including space heaters, candles, stovetops and cooking utensils, smoking, overloaded power strips, and in rare circumstances, arson.
Additionally, drugs and alcohol usually play a factor. A quick Youtube search shows numerous videos of students under the influence partaking in dangerous fire-related stunts.

How can a dangerous incident be prevented?

The Kitchen

  • Keep cooking area clean and clear of burnable materials
  • Pay attention while you cook, especially if you’re using high temperatures
  • If the microwave catches on fire, leave the door closed and unplug it


  • Make sure candles have sturdy holders
  • Don’t leave burning candles unattended
  • Keep candles away from anything that burns
  • Consider using flameless candles


  • Don’t throw cigarettes in a trash can without soaking them in water first
  • Always put cigarettes out in an ashtray
  • Make sure ashtrays are somewhere sturdy and won’t fall over or catch items on fire
  • Don’t let cigarette butts or ash wander or fall underneath couches, sofas, or other places in the home

Lamps and Lights

  • Make sure they are placed away from flammable objects
  • Don’t use extension cords for large appliances
  • Don’t put too many devices on an outlet
  • Make sure surge protectors and power strips have internal overload protection

How to Respond During a Fire Incident:

If a fire does occur, it’s vital to understand how to respond so danger or death can be avoided.

A few simple steps:

  • Don’t ever ignore a fire alarm
  • Get out and stay out until advised that it’s safe to return inside
  • If a fire occurs, “get low and go” under smoke to the nearest safe exit and help people with mobility impairment
  • Don’t use elevators, take the stairs
  • Be familiar with fire alarm pull stations, stairways and emergency exits
  • Have two ways out in case of an emergency

If you’re exiting a room, cautiously feel a closed door for heat before you open it. If it’s hot, find a different exit. If you’re ever trapped in a room due to a fire and can’t escape, immediately call 911. Afterwards, place a wet towel under the door to keep smoke out and open a window and wave a bright object or flashlights to alert people.

Know How to Use a Fire Extinguisher

There’s one essential word for proper fire extinguisher use, P.A.S.S.

  • Pull the pin, which is in place to prevent an accidental discharge
  • Aim low at the base of the fire, this is where the fuel source is
  • Squeeze the lever above the handle, release to stop the flow
  • Sweep from side to side, move toward the fire aiming low at the base and sweep it until the flames are extinguished, watching for re-ignite and repeat as necessary

Helping Those with Disabilities

Those with disabilities will need further assistance when evacuating a building.

Those with disabilities will need further assistance when evacuating a building. If you are the parent of a student with a disability, start by speaking with an RA or building manager to help formulate and escape plan and have a point of contact for help.

If the person with a disability uses a walker, wheelchair, or other form of aid, make sure it fits through exit doorways. Have the person practice opening locked doors and windows as well. And remember to have two exits for every room.

Visual Impairments

If a student has a visual impairment, then keep a phone near the bed in case of emergency. Certain smoke alarms can be programmed to pause between beeps so instructions can be heard.

Hearing Impairments

If you have a hearing impairment, you will need a device to alert you of a fire. Smoke alarms are sold with strobe lights that will provide a visual signal, or bed shakers and other devices can be purchased.

Mobility Impairments

Those with mobility impairment will need to have an evacuation plan that does not include the elevator. It may be best to have them live on the bottom floor so they can have immediate access out of a building without hindrance.

Fire Case: Closed

September is fire safety month and more information will be shared online and at college campuses across the country. Remind students to check the insurance they have. Oftentimes they are under the impression that their parents coverage will cover them, which isn’t always the case.

And always remember to cover the basics:

  • Know the location of the nearest fire alarm
  • Don’t ever prop open hallway doors
  • Never have a lock on fire exit doors
  • If campus fire equipment is vandalized, report it
  • Due to the many chemicals, electrical and heat sources, science laboratory rooms are a prime location for fire to spread and ignite. Follow all lab rules, don’t leave expereiments unattended, and keep gasses and chemicals away from heat.
  • Check to see if there are any items banned in your dorm and what those may be (incense, lava lamps, space heaters, candles, toaster ovens, et cetera)

A campaign was launched by Campus Firewatch using the hashtag  #OffCampusFire. The campaign is meant to encourage parents to make-sure off-campus housing is fire-safe before signing a lease. It’s sponsored by Campus Firewatch, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Fire Protection Association, and the U.S. Fire Administration. View the campaign here: and follow them @CampusFireWatch.