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Roberts: Sprinkler systems should be mandatory in college housing

Allocating funds for fire safety equipment will never

Allocating funds for fire safety equipment will never draw as much attention to a college as a new recreation center or expanding the dining facilities -- but it is far more important. Photo Credit: iStock

The United States has more than 21 million college students, and for many, this autumn it will be their first experience living away from home.

Fatal fires at colleges are occurring at an alarming rate and there's little being done in statehouses or on the national level to address this serious problem.

Nationwide there's a patchwork of fire protection laws for our college-aged children in dorms and off-campus housing. In most parts of the United States, pet stores and dog kennels are required to have more fire protection than dorm rooms and off-campus housing.

Some schools and states take the issue very seriously, while others are seemingly unaware of the dangers. New York, however, is taking critical first steps toward making college housing safer for our students.

Over the summer, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill that requires colleges to inform students if the building they are living in is equipped with fire sprinklers. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Robach (R-Rochester) and Assemb. Michael Den Dekker (D-Queens), passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly and Senate in June. The Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act -- named after Kerry Rose Fitzsimons, a Marist senior from Commack who lost her life in an off-campus fire in January 2012 -- requires colleges to give students written information about fire safety in both dorms and off-campus housing operated by the college.

At least 162 people have died in fires connected to colleges since 2000, according to Campus Firewatch. Countless more have been injured or traumatized, and the dangers are not just limited to campus. More than four out of five college-related fire fatalities happened in off-campus housing.

Just this past April, a Boston University senior from Brooklyn, Binland Lee, was killed in a fire in her off-campus residence. As many as 19 people were reportedly living in the two-story house, and the landlord was hit with numerous violations. A prosecutor has also been assigned to the case.

Dorm rooms and off-campus houses are prime places for fires to start. First, college housing tends to have a higher density, with sometimes as many as four people sharing a room. Inevitably, some students away from home for the first time and with minimal supervision are going to make bad choices. Many will experiment with candles, incense, smoking and drinking alcohol for the first time. Additionally, many off-campus houses are wood-framed, older and, in some cases, neglected by absentee landlords.

There are, however, steps a college or landlord can take to make buildings safer. Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are relatively inexpensive and require little maintenance. The safest and most comprehensive measure, however, is installing fire sprinklers.

The numbers are clear. Sprinklers have a near 100 percent record in preventing fire fatalities. They are also economical and will save colleges and homeowners money in the long run, in the form of reduced insurance premiums and a dramatic reduction of potential property loss, injuries and fatalities.

New York City has experienced a dramatic decline in fire fatalities since the 1970s because of laws passed by City Council to improve building safety. The city has gone from 310 fatalities in 1970 to 58 fire deaths last year.

We can duplicate these numbers nationwide in our college housing if our leaders take the initiative and act before the next tragedy. Sprinklers should be made mandatory in college housing, with a phase-in period to help mitigate the undeniable costs. Allocating funds for fire safety equipment will never draw as much attention to a college as a new recreation center or expanding the dining facilities -- but it is far more important.

For me and my union, this fight is personal. Kerry Rose Fitzsimons was the daughter of Robert Fitzsimons, a member of Steamfitters Local 638. And I learned about the dangers of fire firsthand when my own home burned to the ground 15 years ago.

Reducing the risk of campus-related fire fatalities requires municipalities and universities to stop turning a blind eye to dangerous situations. It requires parents to take greater notice of their child's living arrangement. The fall semester has begun. New York's college students shouldn't settle for unsafe living conditions.

Richard Roberts is the business agent at large for Steamfitters Local 638, which serves Nassau, Suffolk and New York City.