Congress requires campus fire stats

By Lindsay Carroll

When choosing a residence hall next year, you might want to look at the building’s history and… When choosing a residence hall next year, you might want to look at the building’s history and fire statistics. ‘I think the statistics may be good information to make a more informed decision when selecting a college or residence hall,’ said Jay Frerotte, executive director of Pitt’s Environmental Health and Safety Office. The government is working to protect students from fires ‘mdash; at least, the ones occurring on campus. Last month Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which requires colleges and universities to submit an annual fire safety report to the Department of Education. The report would contain the number of fires in on-campus student housing facilities, as well as the causes, injuries, deaths and property damage related to the fires. It would also describe the facilities’ fire safety and sprinkler systems, fire drills, fire prevention rules and plans for improvement. ‘Pitt’s done an excellent job in having all the code protection features, and we’ve gone above and beyond with sprinkler protection in all our residence halls,’ said Frerotte. ‘We don’t have to start any new record-keeping to comply with this legislation.’ Frerotte said that Pitt’s fire safety system will prove more advanced than other universities. ‘We’ve already fully sprinkled all our dorms,’ said Frerotte, referring to the sprinkler and alarm systems in campus buildings that Pitt updated in 2005. ‘Many universities can’t make that same claim.’ After submission, the Department of Education ‘mdash; with the help of fire organizations, such as the National Fire Protection Association and university representatives ‘mdash; plans to identify the best policies and develop fire safety protocol for schools to follow. The bill also includes a grant program to help fund up-to-date fire system projects. Although his department compiled the statistics for the most recent years and the data is available as the legislation requires, there is still confusion about how and when to publish the information, said Frerotte. ‘We’re waiting for consensus,’ he said. ‘Some say we should proactively distribute the information, and others say it should be available by request.’ He said he didn’t think there was any reason why the information was not published before, because his department already has the necessary statistics. Pittsburgh fire chief Darryl Jones said that he thinks publishing on-campus fire data is a good idea. ‘If you’re aware a problem exists, then you can take actions against that problem,’ he said. ‘I think it’s a good move. The question is: Are people going to use the information that is provided to them?’ The legislation covers on-campus housing facilities, but it doesn’t require universities to publish statistics for fires occurring off campus. Pitt does not keep records of fires at off-campus properties, said Frerotte. ‘I’m not sure the University would be able to publish [off-campus fire statistics],’ said Jones. ‘I don’t know if they would have access to that information. You don’t want to put too much on the University ‘mdash; the students and their parents have to assume some of the responsibilities.’ ‘Keeping track of off-campus housing, that would be a monumental task,’ he added. Jones said the city’s Bureau of Building Inspections and Pitt officials conducted inspections of off-campus housing, some of which occurred during the summer. In May, The Pitt News reported that two McKee Place buildings, owned by Jason Cohen, were not up to fire safety codes and were deemed unlivable by the Bureau. Frerotte confirmed that Pitt representatives attended the inspections for ‘support and participation’ but clarified that the city, not the University, has authority over landlords. There is nothing in the legislation that would require a property owner to report episodes to Pitt, he said. The Center for Campus Fire Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocated for the legislation and trains university fire officials, published fire fatality statistics on its Web site, However, the site does not say where those fires occurred. The organization reported that since January 2000, 94 people have died in 66 separate campus-related fires nationwide. Fifty-four of those fires, with 76 victims, occurred in off-campus housing, while six occurred in on-campus buildings, killing eight, and six occurred in greek housing, claiming 10. At Pitt, several small fires have occurred on campus since 2000, but the fires that killed students have all been off-campus. An accidental apartment fire at 3420 Louisa St. in South Oakland in 2006 killed one Pitt student, while another fire earlier that year on Meyran Avenue killed a 20-year-old man, who did not go to Pitt, and damaged neighboring student apartments. In 2002, an arsonist killed a Pitt student living on North Craig Street, according to articles from The Pitt News from that year. Jones said that carelessness often puts students at a greater risk for fires than other tenants and that sometimes students will compromise safety for cost. ‘You have to be careful with cooking materials, smoking and electronic equipment,’ said Jones. ‘Students have a lot of electronics. If you go to the dollar store, you can get a power strip for a dollar, as opposed to a $20 one at the hardware store. You get what you pay for.’ Jones said that students should make sure that they have working smoke detectors in their apartments. The city provides smoke detectors to single-family private residences but not apartments, which are the landlords’ responsibility. The Fire Bureau can cite landlords who do not provide them. Tenants who feel that their building is unsafe or that their fire protection needs are not met can call the Pittsburgh Bureau of Building Inspection, as well as the Fire Bureau.