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Campus Fires Draw Congressional Scrutiny

May 26, 2005

With a backdrop of poster-sized front pages blaring headlines like "House fire kills 3 students" and "Penn State student fies in house fire," several members of Congress gathered Wednesday to say that they were teaming up to push a package of legislation aimed at improving fire safety on college campuses.

Some of the measures would give colleges financial incentives to install sprinklers and other preventive measures in dormitories and other buildings, while another, introduced Wednesday, would require institutions to report information about their fire safety records and efforts to students and to the federal government, much as they now do on campus crime.

"We know what needs to be done" to protect students and others on campuses, and "we're here today to establish a common agenda," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who was a firefighter and fire chief before he came to Congress 19 years ago. 

Weldon and his colleagues -- Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) -- spoke at a news conference that followed a daylong "summit" at which legislative aides, campus fire safety officials and other fire experts talked about what the government and campuses might do in response to what has been a deadly spring. Six students died in four fires -- three of which took place in off-campus houses -- in April, and a total of 11 died this academic year, according to the Center for Campus Fire Safety, which organized Wednesday's meeting.

High profile flurries of incidents like the April fires at Miami University of Ohio, Penn State, Southern Adventist University and the University of Maryland at College Park tend draw the interest of lawmakers, and several of the members of Congress have introduced legislation in recent months that aim in one way or another to give colleges more tools to combat fires. 

Tubbs-Jones, for instance, introduced a measure in January, H.R. 128, to establish a program that would provide $100 million a year in matching grants to colleges or fraternities or sororities that install sprinkler systems or other methods of suppressing or preventing fires. In March, Weldon offered a bill that would change federal tax law to allow any organization or business that installed sprinklers on its property to depreciate the costs over 5 years instead of the usual 30, blunting the financial pain that is often cited as a reason not to undertake such a project. Tubbs Jones and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) plan to introduce resolutions deeming September "Campus Fire Safety Month."

If those measures are designed as carrots to encourage colleges to upgrade their facilities, Pascrell's legislation is a stick, albeit a relatively benign one. The Campus Fire Safety Right to Know Act of 2005, as he calls it, would require any institution that receives federal aid to collect and publish fire safety information about all on-campus dormitories and "any housing facilities owned or controlled by student groups that are recognized by the institution, including any student fraternity or sorority houses." 

Each year, colleges would have to report on whether each facility is equipped with sprinklers, fire alarms or smoke detectors; provide statistics about the number and extent of fires in each facility in the previous two years; and describe efforts to educate and train students and staff members about fire safety. An institution that did not report could face the loss of federal financial aid funds.

While Weldon said he believed that universities know what they need to do but "don't always have he resources to implement everything," Pascrell took a tougher stance. The recent fires have helped "explode the myth that college campuses are safe places," he said, adding that unlike two decades ago, "you may be safer in a motel, and a cheap one at that," than in a campus dormitory. "Despite these fires, many campus communities have taken far too long to act," and "too many families have had to suffer the unbearable horror of losing a loved one early in their lives."

Pascrell said that students and parents have too little information about the relative safety of their campus choices. "You should know before you go whether that campus has sprinklers, whether there has been instruction so that staff and students know what to do and where to go in case of an emergency," he said. "You have the right to know that."

Measures like Pascrell's tend to draw complaints from college officials about burdensome paperwork and overregulation, although an aide to the Congressman said staff members had worked with college officials on language that minimized the work.

Mike Halligan, associate director of the fire prevention program at the University of Utah, who was one of the college officials involved in Wednesday's summit, said he believed that most institutions already had the information Pascrell's bill seeks readily available. "There isn't a whole lot of new stuff, so the impact should be minimal," he said. 

Those who would complain "are probably the ones who have the worst records," Halligan said. "Let them complain. This will force them to do better. There's no downside -- students win, parents win and campuses win."

 

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