The number of reported fires in university and college housing has increased sharply in recent years, federal officials said Tuesday as they warned students returning to school to take steps to prevent future blazes.
There were 3,300 college housing fires in 2005, up from 1,800 in 1998 according to a report by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA. Some have proved fatal. From 2002 to 2005, there were 39 deaths and close to 400 injuries from fires in residences that include dormitories, fraternities, sororities and barracks.
Federal officials said the increase comes as students cram more electrical equipment into their dorm rooms, including cooking tools such as microwaves and hot plates that are responsible for a majority of the fires. Most of the fatalities, however, were blamed on fires sparked by smoking or unattended candles.
“By knowing what causes fires … students will increase their own safety,” said Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which cited the report on fires in its warning to parents and students.
Campus fires stood at 3,200 in 1980 but dropped gradually over the next 19 years as schools took measures such as installing sprinklers in dorms and educating students about fire safety. The recent rise could be partly attributed to fire equipment that can better detect fires that might not have been reported in the past, said Judy Comoletti of the NFPA.
But much of the fire prevention is beyond the control of schools. Many fires and fatalities occur in off-campus housing and are difficult to track statistically, Nord said. Students in aging sorority and fraternity houses or apartment buildings are often at risk of fire, especially when volatile factors such as smoking and alcohol use are combined.
The University of Maryland, which federal officials used as the backdrop for Tuesday’s announcement, suffered two off-campus fire deaths since 2005. The number of fires on campus has not increased.
Students were advised to use the same fire prevention at school as they do at home. That includes paying attention to fire alarms, knowing where emergency exits are, being careful with cooking equipment and taking extra precaution with cigarette and other smoking materials.
But whether the students take that message to heart is still unclear.
“Are they getting it? Do they appreciate it? I couldn’t tell you that,” said Alan Sactor, the University of Maryland fire marshal.
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