Georgetown graduate student killed in off-campus fire in Washington, DC

Fourth fatal fire this academic year. Read More

Choosing fire-safe, off-campus housing, an open letter to parents

As the school year winds down at colleges and universities across the country, students are looking at off-campus apartments and housing for next year. In most college communities, there are always more students looking for rentals than there are properties available, so the choices for safe, affordable housing are often limited and compromises may have to be made.

A choice in housing may hinge on three factors:

  1. Is it close to campus?
  2. Do I get my own room?
  3. Is it affordable?

These are certainly important things to look for, but when it comes to fire safety, there are other considerations as well. The potential list is long, but I would distill it down to what I think are the top three priorities based on the fires I have seen over the years in off-campus housing:

  1. Does it have two ways out from each floor? Sometimes this might have to be an escape ladder.
  2. Does it have working smoke alarms, one on each floor, and one in each bedroom?
  3. Is smoking not allowed? Smoking is the leading cause of fatal fires, particularly when they start in couches out on the front porches or decks.

Students were killed in fires in Boston and Cincinnati because they were trapped in their third floor rooms. Students were killed in fires in Madison and Ann Arbor because a fire started in a couch on the front porch and then swept into the house in the middle of the night. Students have died in fires where the smoke alarms were missing or the batteries had been taken out.

I have two sons in college, and we all want to give our kids the freedom to make decisions, including picking where to live, but this is something that they just may not think about. Last September I spent move-in weekend going around Boston talking with parents, and for every single one I talked with, this was the first time they were seeing where their son or daughter was going to be living. Many were appalled at the choices that had been made, but it was too late.

This is something you can be a part of, and even if they have already picked a place, you can still make a difference when you are helping them move in next fall. Not enough smoke alarms? You can talk with the landlord or, even faster, just go out and buy them and put them up yourself. It’s cheap, quick and easy.

Is your child living on a second or third story with only one way out? Give them a fire escape ladder. I just came back from an off-campus fire in Columbus, Ohio. All of the students got out safely through the stairway, but in one of the rooms there was a box with an escape ladder in it. She was ready-is your son or daughter?

Yes, we want to let them make choices, but they also need to learn how to make good choices, and this is an opportunity to help them before they head off on their own. Whether it is now, when they are picking an apartment, or next fall, when they are moving in, I encourage you to be a part of it.


comeau signature 11.03.11




Ed Comeau
Campus Firewatch

Campus Firewatch Information Sheet

Quick stats on fatal campus-related fires Campus Firewatch Information Sheet

Four out of five campus-related fire deaths happen off-campus

Last fatal fire in a residence hall or Greek housing was 2006. Read More