Do you have a child or grandchild in college? It’s certainly one of the most memorable times of their lives, and one that brings new challenges. Dorm life, especially, can be a challenge, as it involves cohabitating alongside hundreds of people—each with their own lifestyles and habits.
One peril of living in a dorm is fire. Each year, about 1,700 fires break out in on- and off-campus collegiate housing, according to the American Society of Safety Engineers. And about 150 fires occur in fraternity and sorority houses annually.
Here’s a look at the most common reasons fires break out in dorm rooms and apartments, and how you can help protect your child with fire safety tips.
Burning candles are a huge fire hazard. When placed in the wrong area—even for a few minutes—they can easily set papers, blankets and curtains ablaze, causing extensive damage or injury. Keep in mind that many dorms ban traditional candles. A safe alternative is to buy battery-powered or “flameless” candles that don’t use a real flame, or to remove candle wicks so they still look and smell nice but can’t be lit.
If your child insists on having real candles–say, in their apartment–they should at least know how to use them safely. Candles should be kept in sturdy candleholders placed on level surfaces and never left unattended. They should also be kept at least a foot away from anything that can burn.
2. Electrical Outlets and Equipment
Students cram many electronics into their dorm rooms and apartments today, ranging from laptops and TVs to microwaves and hair dryers. Each gadget has its own power supply, meaning that each gadget is a fire hazard. “Extension cords, power cords and outlets can overheat,” advises the fire department in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “When cords overheat, they can also deteriorate quickly and cause a potential shock or fire hazard.”
Power supplies that overheat may suggest a malfunction inside the cord and need to be replaced. Students should also be sure to use power strips with built-in surge protectors when plugging multiple items into outlets. A surge protector shields gadgets from damage that could be caused by a voltage spike or even a lightning strike.
It’s important to be careful with electrical cords in general. They shouldn’t be placed under carpets or furniture and multiple extension cords shouldn’t be connected together. Certain electric equipment, such as irons and space heaters, should generally be unplugged when not in use to avoid accidents.
Some students rarely or never cook when living in the dorms, thanks to campus dining halls and meal plans. When they do, however, they need to be careful. Microwave ovens are a relatively safe way to cook, because they don’t involve open flames or exposed heated surfaces. That said, students should know how to use them correctly.
Never leave a microwave unattended when it’s in use and if it’s to be unused for long periods, it should be unplugged. Metals and other items not explicitly designated “microwave safe” should never be placed inside microwaves because they can cause sparks and potentially lead to a fire.
Other common dorm room cooking devices—including coffee makers, portable electric ranges and toaster ovens—come with their own hazards. (Before using, make sure the dorm allows such equipment, as many don’t.) When in use, they should not be left unattended, and when not in use, they should be fully shut off and unplugged.
Most college dorms ban smoking of all types, but that doesn’t stop many students from trying to get away with it anyway. Smoking is a big fire hazard as the embers and remnants can start fires if they’re not properly discarded.
Though parents may not want their kids smoking, they should at least remind them of the dangers of smoking indoors. Livestrong.com offers these tips: “Never throw a used cigarette in an indoor garbage can; instead, make sure the cigarette is thoroughly extinguished, and place in a metal or glass ashtray. The best option is a wide-rimmed “safety ashtray” with a deep center. Consider soaking cigarette butts in water before discarding in an outdoor garbage can, or even before letting them rest in the ashtray.”
5. No Working Smoke Alarms
Smoke detectors—when kept in working order and in the right locations—are one of the most important ways to prevent serious and costly fires. Some college students remove the batteries from their smoke alarms to avoid having to deal with them, but that prevents them from doing their job.
Every dorm room should have a working smoke alarm in a central part of the room. Most dorms come equipped with smoke alarms, but they still need to be tested monthly and maintained. If a test fails, alert the building’s maintenance manager or try installing new batteries.
If a smoke alarm goes off, it shouldn’t be taken lightly—as it could signal a serious fire.
Remember that smoke inhalation is just as dangerous as actual fire.
6. No Fire Extinguisher
Not having a fire extinguisher doesn’t cause a fire, of course,but it certainly can increase the amount of damage. Small fire extinguishers cost about $20 and can put out a small fire, before it becomes a big fire.
Keeping such extinguishers in an easy-to-access place in the dorm room can minimize the risk of a major fire. Make sure the student knows how to use it, so they are ready in case they ever need it.
Of course, being prepared for a dorm room fire means more than just knowing the risks. It’s also about being ready in case a major fire erupts. That includes knowing the building’s designated escape routes and never ignoring a fire alarm.
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