U.S. Colleges Need Fire Safety Awareness

America's young college scholars and emerging leaders need and deserve transparent, reliable information from our nation's universities about campus fire safety to make educated decisions about what is likely their first home away from home. Oftentimes that university housing is in a shared, densely-populated campus dormitory or apartment.

While the number of total fires in the U.S. decreased nearly 47% from 2,326,500 in 1983 to 1,240,000 in 2013, fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and student barracks increased 52% from 2,490 in 1983 to 3,780 in 2011, according to the most recent data provided by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

As U.S. college enrollment is reaching record numbers, many of our nation's 21 million college students live in housing lacking fire protection systems and even access to information whether their campus lodging is equipped with the lifesaving technology.

According to Campus Firewatch, an average of 3,810 campus housing fires occur in the U.S. each year, resulting in 170 campus-related fire fatalities since 2000. There were four deaths in the 2014-2015 academic year, and that is four too many.

College housing commonly has a higher concentration of tenants who tend to overload electrical sockets, overuse extension cords and halogen lamps. These practices, along with hazards associated with burning candles, incense and space heaters, are all major causes of campus fires.

In college, some students venture into cooking the first time. According to NFPA, cooking equipment was involved in 84% of the reported dormitory fires between 2007 and 2011.

Regardless of what causes campus fires, prevention is an important issue that needs not only to be addressed with the higher education institutions shaping the minds of America's young scholars, but also to university and political leaders across the country.

New York is one of few states requiring colleges and universities to report whether on-campus housing is equipped with automatic fire sprinkler systems, as mandated by the New York State Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act. The legislation is named for Kerry Rose Fitzsimons who in 2012 perished in a fire at a Marist College off-campus house that lacked sprinklers.

To increase university fire safety efforts on a national level, Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) has introduced the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act (H.R. 4675), which would require higher education institutions participating in federal student aid programs under Title IV to report the number and percentage of beds protected and not protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system.

That legislation can empower nearly 21 million students attending U.S. colleges and universities to make better housing decisions every year. It doesn't guarantee the installation of these systems, but instead increases transparency and awareness of fire safety technology in place.

Fire sprinklers are designed to detect, contain and control a fire in its early stages, reducing the chance of a fire fatality by 80% and property damage by 70%. Residential fire sprinklers can range in cost from $0.38 to $3.66 per square foot, a very marginal expense compared to the value of even one young life saved.

It's critical that students be protected and have access to fire prevention information. It should not take another college fire fatality in the 2015-16 school year to bring more attention to the topic. It's time the parents of America speak up to alma maters, to our children's universities and local elected representatives with a loud, clear and united voice for increased fire safety efforts, awareness and transparency.

Patrick Dolan, Jr. is the President of the 8,000-member Steamfitters Local Union 638. Steamfitters design, install and maintain fire sprinklers; gas, water and steam piping; and heating, ventilation and cooling systems in tens of thousands of high-occupancy commercial, retail and residential buildings.