Campus Fire Safety/Overview of fatal incidents

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Overview of fatal incidents[edit]

From January 2000 to February 22, 125 people have died in campus-related fires across the United States as reported by Campus Firewatch.

Location of fatal fires[edit]

Over 80 percent of these deaths have occurred in off-campus occupancies, such as rented houses and apartments. A compilation of the fatal fires is available online.

Common factors in fatal fires[edit]

Common factors in a number of these fires include:

  • Lack of automatic fire sprinklers
  • Missing or disabled smoke alarms
  • Careless disposal of smoking materials
  • Impaired judgment from alcohol consumption

Alcohol and campus-related fires

By Ed Comeau, Publisher

Reprinted with permission from Campus Firewatch, copyright 2007

The profile of students drinking at campuses is changing. “Over time, the percentage of abstainers has risen as has the percentage of heavy episodic alcohol users” reported Beth DeRicco, associate director of The Center for College Health and Safety (which operates The U.S. Department of Education's Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention). This is creating a spectrum of drinkers where each end of the spectrum is growing.

There are a number of contributing factors impacting student drinking. In the report “A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges” published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these factors include:

• Living arrangements, where drinking is highest in fraternities and sororities (North American student societies) followed by residence halls and then by off-campus housing.

• Colleges with drinking problems include those where the Greek systems dominate and where the athletic teams are prominent

• First year students

• Males

• Whites

While the report may indicate that the lowest amount of drinking is occurring in off-campus occupancies, this is countered by the fact that almost two-thirds of the students in the country live off-campus, most are older students and therefore have easier access to alcohol and there are far fewer restrictions on behavior in off-campus housing.

Furthermore, almost 80% of the fire fatalities identified by Campus Firewatch have occurred off-campus and one of the contributing factors in a number of them has been impaired judgment from alcohol. This is reinforced by the findings of a study done by USA TODAY where in over half of the 43 fatal fires studied at least one of the students that had died had been drinking. The average blood alcohol count, where available, was 0.12 with a high of 0.304.

Even if the students living off-campus are drinking less than their peers on-campus or in Greek housing, the impact of their actions is clearly more tragic.

A survey by the Core Institute at Southern Illinois University provides a profile of who is drinking and how much.

Average Number of Drinks per Week

Year in School Male Female
Freshman 7.39 3.86
Sophomore 8.24 3.67
Junior 9.58 3.94
Senior 10.17 4.59


There are some terms and definitions that need to be clarified when it comes to looking at the campus drinking problem.

A heavy episodic alcohol user, or what is referred to as “binge drinking” in some studies, is someone who drinks three or more times in the previous two weeks and drinks to drunkenness with the intent of getting drunk, reports DeRicco. “What is troubling is that a heavy episodic alcohol user can be a functional student,” said DeRicco. These students are not realizing their full potential and may be suffering from a number of alcohol-related health issues and developing troubling patterns that will impact their future significantly.

According to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse’s definition of binge drinking, “The 5/4 definition of binge drinking is where a ‘binge’ is a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 gram percent or above. For the typical adult this pattern corresponds to consuming 5 or more drinks (male) or 4 or more drinks (female) in about 2 hours.”

The term “drunkenness” refers to when someone reaches the legal limit of intoxication and beyond. In many states, for people under 21 it is a blood alcohol count (BAC) under 0.02 and 0.10 for people 21 or older. Since the drinking age in all states is 21, having a BAC of 0.02 indicates that the person has been drinking.

Tolerance has nothing to do with a person’s blood alcohol count, according to DeRicco. Two different people can be legally intoxicated, but one might not appear as drunk because he or she is able to tolerate higher levels of alcohol. “Women metabolize alcohol differently than men do,” said DeRicco. “That has to do with a higher percentage of body fat. Generally, a woman would get more intoxicated than a man on the same amount of alcohol.”

How many students are heavy episodic drinkers?[edit]

In a study published in 2002 by the Boston University School of Public Health it was reported that 44 percent of the students randomly surveyed had been involved in “at least one heavy-drinking episode in the year prior to the survey, a percentage that has not changed since 1993.” Another study had similar results.

In the report “Healthy People 2010” published by the U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, binge drinking was identified for specific reduction, from 39 percent to 20 percent by the year 2010. “Binge drinking is a national problem, especially among males and young adults,” notes the report. “The perception that alcohol use is socially acceptable correlates with the fact that more than 80 percent of American youth consume alcohol before their 21st birthday, whereas the lack of social acceptance of other drugs correlates with comparatively lower rates of use.”

An interesting fact that emerged in a study from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study was that in states where there are fewer adults who are binge drinkers and with strong laws that discourage excessive consumption, the number of binge drinkers on campus is lower.

“What we discovered is that a student who goes to school in a state with fewer adult binge drinkers is less likely to be a binge drinker,” said Toben F. Nelson of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study in a prepared statement. “These states also tend to have well-developed alcohol control policies.” These include, according to Harvard, states that:

• Mandate registering kegs

• Make it illegal to drive with blood alcohol levels of 0.08 percent or higher

• Place restrictions on happy hours, open containers, beer sold in pitchers, and billboards and other types of alcohol advertising.

The NIAAA supports this finding in one of their publications, where they report that, “Prevention strategies that may be especially useful in curbing young adult alcohol use are those that focus on restricting the availability of alcohol. Such measures include raising the cost of alcohol through taxes, limiting where and when alcohol can be consumed, and enforcing policies that help to reduce problems such as drinking and driving.”

What is valuable in looking at the alcohol problem on campus is to compare it to society at large. The NIAAA reports that while studies have found heavy alcohol consumption among people in their twenties, whether they go to college or not, some surveys have found a lower percentage of students drinking than non-students. However, when the students do drink, they are drinking in greater quantities than their non-student peers.

On the positive side, students stop these drinking practices more quickly than the non-student and have a lower rate of alcohol dependence.

The impact of alcohol on campuses[edit]

According to the latest statistics from NIAAA:

• 1,700 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries

• Almost 600,000 are injured

• 97,000 were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape

• 400,000 students reported having unprotected sex

• 100,000 students reported having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex

• 25% reported academic consequences of their drinking, including receiving lower grades overall

• 2.1 million students drove under the influence

• 11% reported damaging property while under the influence

• 31% of students met the criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse

Making Change[edit]

In the DHHS report, the difficulty of implementing change was highlighted because of the nature of alcohol in campuses across the country.

“The tradition of drinking has developed into a kind of culture – beliefs and customs – entrenched in every level of college students’ environments,” states the report. Some of the contributing factors include:

• Establishments close to campus that sell alcohol and depend upon students for their financial success

• Customs on campus that promote drinking such as advertisements at college sports arenas (or even arenas that are named after alcohol distilleries or breweries)

• Alumni that continue the alcohol tradition at sporting and alumni events.

• Environmental and peer influences that actively promotes drinking as a rite of passage

Making a change is difficult for varied reasons, but one of the leading ones, according to the DHHS report, is the perception that it is an unsolvable problem. “When schools have made efforts to reduce drinking among their students – and many have made considerable effort – they haven’t had significant, campus-wide success. With each failed effort, the image of college drinking as an intractable problem is reinforced, administrators are demoralized, and the likelihood that schools will devote resources to prevention programs decreases.”

Drinking and fire safety[edit]

There have been some documents and studies published to provide a linkage between alcohol consumption and its role in fire fatalities that are widely cited. Unfortunately, some of the research used in preparing these studies is quite dated, ranging from 1972 to 1998. The result is that, unfortunately, we do not have a current view on the connection between alcohol consumption and fire injury and fatality.

Some of the more current data comes from the NFPA which reports that from 1999 to 2002, an estimated 10 percent of the fatalities in fires were impaired by alcohol. However, since there are different reporting requirements regarding the BAC of victims, this data may vary from state to state, making a national comparison difficult.

Anecdotally, however, fire chiefs in college communities agree that alcohol consumption among students is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. In a number of fatal fires looked at by Campus Firewatch, impaired judgment from alcohol consumption has been one of the contributing factors to the deaths.

Campus Firewatch worked closely with USA TODAY in helping the newspaper prepare a major story on the impact of alcohol on campus-related fire deaths. Research conducted by USA TODAY of 43 fires that killed 62 students found that:

• In 59% of the fatal fires, at least one student who died had been drinking

• In 28% of the fires the smoke detector was absent or had been disconnected

• 66% of the victims were juniors or seniors

• 65% of the victims were male

• 25% of the fatal fires occurred following a party

• In 21 of the cases where an autopsy indicated the blood alcohol content, the average was 0.12 with a high of 0.304

• Over half, 56%, of the fires occurred on the two weekend days, Saturday or Sunday, with 44% occurring during the rest of the week

Alcohol and smoke alarm response[edit]

Some of the most compelling research is being conducted by Dr. Dorothy Bruck and Michelle Ball from Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.

In a study conducted by Bruck and Ball, students were given controlled amounts of alcohol to drink and then allowed to fall asleep in their own beds. Once they were fully asleep, they were exposed to gradually increasing levels of sound that simulate smoke alarms and their response was measured. Their response while sober was measured to determine a baseline response as well as their response at 0.05 BAC and 0.08 BAC.

It was found that when students have been drinking it takes a much louder alarm sounding (95 dBA) to respond to smoke alarms than when they are sober. The normal smoke alarm is required to sound at 75 decibels (dBA) at the pillow.

What was troubling is the low level of inebriation (0.05 BAC) that caused the response capability to significantly deteriorate. In 36% of the trials the test subject did not respond until the alarm level was at 95 dBA or did not respond at all when they were at 0.05 BAC. This increased to 42% at the 0.08 BAC.

What is notable is that while the response capability decreases as the blood alcohol level increases, it is not as significant as the increase from sobriety to 0.05 BAC. In other words, it does not take much alcohol to cause a significant decrease in the ability to react to an alarm. According to the study, “The meaning of this is that even at what many would consider to be low to moderate levels, alcohol can seriously affect a sleeping person’s ability to respond to their smoke alarm. In fact, many participants reported feeling only slightly ‘tipsy’ at bedtime in the 0.05 BAC condition.”

Alcohol is a significant problem on many campuses, and it has a direct impact upon fire safety as well. According to the study, “Under benign circumstances, unimpaired adults aged 18 to 64 respond well to smoke alarm signals, and are at a comparatively low risk for death. However, alcohol ingestion greatly increases fire fatality risk across all age groups.” The report continues, “The increased mortality rate for those who have been drinking is a very important issue for young adults, who are perhaps less experienced drinkers than their older counterparts, and whose lifestyle traditionally provides more opportunities for partying, but who also have more deep sleep.”

The report lists a number of ways that alcohol impairment can impact upon a person’s response (or non-response) to a fire alarm, including:

• Failure to hear alarm

• Failure to correctly interpret alarm

• Inappropriate response, such as a failure to avoid a dangerous pathway

• Poor motor functioning, e.g., poor balance and coordination

• Recovery rate from burns is significantly worse for alcoholics, meaning that they may suffer death from more minor injuries than non-alcoholics.

Smoking and alcohol[edit]

In an effort to determine the linkage between smoking and alcohol abuse, a study was undertaken by Drs. Grucza and Chen. In it, they found that there is a definite connection between alcohol abuse and smoking among adolescents aged 12 to 20. According to their research, “Both academic studies and casual observation support the view that smokers tend to drink, and drinkers tend to smoke. New research using nationally representative data from the U.S. finds that smokers – particularly adolescent smokers – clearly have a greater vulnerability to alcohol-use disorders (AUDs) than do non-smokers.”

They go on to point out three key findings of their research:

• “Popular and clinical lore support the strong connection between smoking and alcohol consumption.

• Adolescent smokers appear to have a greater vulnerability to developing alcohol-use disorders.

• Results indicate that smoking “primes” the brain for subsequent addiction to alcohol and possibly other drugs.”

Alcohol has been a part of college life for decades. Its impact upon fire safety has always been informally acknowledged by those that have to deal with it on a daily basis. What is needed is a concerted effort to use the loss of life that is occurring from fires where alcohol impairment is a factor as a mechanism to reduce both troubling problems- drinking and fire deaths.

Ed Comeau is the publisher of Campus Firewatch, founder and former director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety and former chief fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association. He can be reached at