The start of school is a busy time. Not only are you getting supplies ready, but college students may be in a whirlwind of activity to get everything they need to move into their dorm room or their off-campus apartment. One thing college students and their parents may not readily think about when it comes to college is fire safety, but there is a real danger.

According to an NFPA report, between “2009-2013, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 3,870 structure fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and barracks.” Sadly, a number of these fires proved fatal. “From 2000-2015, 89 fires that killed 126 people have occurred on a college campus, in Greek housing or in off-campus housing within three miles of the campus,” the NFPA added. Most of these reported structure fires involved cooking equipment.

Sadly, an Oklahoma State University student was killed in an off-campus fire in 2006 that started on the exterior porch of a two-story, wood frame house and extended into the building. Apparently the two occupants in the house got out safely, but didn’t realize that the victim, who was a frequent guest at the house, had come in during the night. According to reports, there were hardwired smoke alarms in the building, but it was uncertain if they were activated. The fire also may have spread from the exterior into a ceiling void space and could have damaged the wiring to the smoke alarms.

So, what can students and their parents do to prevent a fire and ensure they’re safe if a fire does occur? Keep in mind these college campus fire safety tips…

See It Before You Sign It

Most fatal college-related fires occurred in off-campus housing, so officials have started a “See It Before You Sign It” campaign to encourage parents and students to make sure the housing has adequate fire protection systems in place before they sign a lease. Below is a checklist from the National Fire Protection Association, The Center for Campus Fire Safety, and Campus Firewatch of things parents and students can ask to see before they sign.

Whether living on or off-campus, look for fully sprinklered housing. Fire sprinklers can quickly and effectively extinguish fires before they have a chance to spread.

Checklist for Students Living Off-Campus

Smoke Alarms

  • Does every room have a smoke alarm? In most fatal fires, the smoke alarms are missing or disabled. Often, a reason for this is nuisance alarms caused by cooking. Photoelectric smoke alarms near the kitchen can help cut down on this. What kind of smoke alarms do you have?
  • What is the power supply to the smoke detector? (hardwire | battery | both)? Who provides the battery replacements?


  • Are there two ways out of every bedroom? Keep in mind the second way out may be a window. If a window is the second way out, does it open? Is it blocked by an air conditioner? Can you climb out of it? Are there security bars on the window?
  • If the bedroom is on a second or third floor, do you have an escape ladder? These can be purchased online or in a home improvement store.
  • Is there a second way out of the house or unit? Every apartment must have two ways out.
  • Is the second way out blocked by storage in the stairs such as bicycles or trash cans? Is the snow removed from the door and steps so you can get away from the building?
  • Can the exit doors be opened from the inside – without a key?

Fire Causes

  • The leading cause of all home fires is cooking. What condition is the stove in?
  • What about the electrical service? Are there enough outlets to handle today’s electrical needs?
  • What about smoking? The leading cause of all fatal home fires is smoking, and acontributing factor in college-related fires is fires that start in upholstered furniture on porches and decks.

Other Questions for Landlords

  • What is your disciplinary policy toward tenants who cause false alarms or fail to evacuate during an alarm?
  • How often are evacuation drills conducted? Is there an escape plan in place? Is there a designated meeting place outside your building?
  • What fire safety training does your building staff receive?
  • Does the off-campus housing have fire extinguishers?

Checklist for Students Living On-Campus

The Center for Campus Fire Safety recommends asking detailed questions to find out the school’s level of safety and preparedness for an emergency. A safe school will share these answers openly.

  • How many fire incidents are on your campus? Are the incidents usually accidental or intentional?
  • Do you follow up with public education and informing students of how to prevent these events in the future?
  • Which buildings are protected with an automatic fire sprinkler systems? Are all residential buildings equipped with sprinklers?
  • Does every student’s room have a smoke alarm?
  • What is the school’s disciplinary policy towards students that cause false alarms or fail to evacuate? nfpa fire safety
  • Is smoking allowed in dorm rooms or apartments?
  • What items are prohibited in the residence halls? Candles, Halogen Lamps?
  • What are the acceptable small appliances to bring to school?
  • Do the dorm rooms have enough outlets with enough power to feed energy need? Arethere recommended limits or specific certified products that are safer to use?
  • Do the residence hall staff receive fire and life safety training? How often?
  • How often do students get exposure to fire and life safety training such as fire extinguisher training and evacuation drills?
  • What other types of exercises does the school conduct regarding emergency planning and preparedness?

Parents can make sure their children, even grown children, understand the basics about fire safety including when cooking, checking smoke alarms monthly, and having an escape plan. As they go out on their own and take on more responsibility during their college years, make sure to remind young adults of the importance of fire safety. You can find more fire safety tips for college students and children on the NFPA’s website at