Fully sprinklered housing offers the greatest protection for students.

Fully sprinklered housing offers the greatest protection for students. Credit: Gado via Getty Images/Smith Collection/Gado

Many students in New York and across America going to college are committing this month to a university for the fall semester. On the list of considerations are majors, buying a new computer, and the number of roommates in the first dorm room, but likely not fire safety. No student or parent expects their child to be in harm’s way of a fire at college.

Those seeking housing on or off campus should not have to worry about living in a fire-safe environment. According to National Fire Protection Association data, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 3,840 structure fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and other related properties from 2015 to 2019. The Center for Campus Fire Safety found that 94 fatal fires with 134 victims occurred on a college campus, in Greek housing, or in off-campus housing within three miles of a school since 2000.

Fully sprinklered housing offers the greatest protection for students. Each sleeping room also should have a working smoke detector. The United States Fire Administration reports smoke alarms were either missing or had been tampered with in 58% of fatal campus fires. Federal researchers found fire sprinklers were not present in any reported fatal campus fire — a complete coordination failure.

The heartbreaking 2000 Seton Hall University fire in New Jersey that killed three students and injured 58 others is still evoked as a lesson and reminder for the urgent need to implement proper fire safety measures. The installation and maintenance of fire sprinkler systems is one crucial — and often missing — fire safety measure.

There are still a significant number of student dormitories and other college living arrangements in New York State not required to be protected with an automatic fire sprinkler system. New York began mandating fire suppression sprinklers in 1984, and then only in newly constructed college dormitories. Right now, older residential facilities must add fire sprinklers only if they undergo major renovations approved by the state's Dormitory Authority.

New York has been a leader in fire safety and dormitories in higher education before. Following the Seton Hall fire, New York implemented stricter campus fire inspection laws. In 2013, the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act required colleges and universities to provide information on whether college-owned and operated housing was protected with sprinklers.

Now, it is crucial for New York to take action in the largest segment of university housing: the SUNY system. By retrofitting all existing student housing with fire sprinkler systems, SUNY can set the standard for other educational institutions by lifting the floor on safety and doubling down on proactive, intentional fire resiliency.

The lessons from previous campus fire tragedies must not be forgotten. Protecting the lives and property of our student population should be a priority. Investments in our public safety infrastructure today are a down payment against painful, traumatic deferred costs of tomorrow.

Consider the safety of student dorms when committing to a college. Neither college dorm residents nor their parents should have to worry about fire fatality when studying to better their futures. Pushing for fire safety is vital to the security and learning experiences of our campuses. 

This guest essay reflects the views of Anthony Saporito, executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of New York, Inc.

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