Beyond Sparky the Dog

A new nonprofit group works with colleges to make 'indestructible' students' take fire safety seriously.
April 1, 2005

In 1999, after 20 years as a fire fighter and engineer and five years as chief investigator for the National Fire Prevention Association, Ed Comeau gladly accepted the association's request that he organize its first-ever forum on campus fire safety. Comeau cared about the issue and thought it deserved more attention. "It wasn't really on anybody's radar screen," he says.

The first three months of 2000 changed the equation. Major fires at Seton Hall University and Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania killed three students each, lawmakers raced to legislate on the issue, and officials on many campuses scurried to update their facilities and their policies. 

Comeau found that most campus fire safety officials desperately wanted -- and lacked -- good information about news and trends and advice on educating college students about potential dangers and preventive measures. So he started a newsletter, Campus Firewatch, and last year, that publication spawned a nonprofit organization, the Center for Campus Fire Safety.

There's no shortage of information about fire safety for children, as anyone who remembers Smokey the Bear (or his more recent relative, Sparky the Fire Dog) or schoolhouse visits in which firefighters exhorted children to "stop, drop and roll" would attest. And fire officials typically spend lots of time with the elderly to make sure they know what to do in an emergency.

But "there's a huge demographic in the middle that hears nothing about fire safety," says Comeau, and "there is very little in the way of fire safety information that is geared to college students."

And it's an audience that very much needs to hear a safety messages, he says: "At 18 to 24, the view is, 'I'm indestructible, it won't happen to me,' so you really need to drill it home. And it has to be at a mature level: Sparky the Dog just doesn't fly."

Comeau's group works with campus fire chiefs to develop programs and materials they can in turn share with students on their campuses. The materials hammer home common messages about the need for vigilance and the "common threads" that run through most student-related fire incidents: disabled smoke alarms, careless disposal of cigarettes, and the involvement of alcohol. (Arson is also a major factor.)

Mike Halligan, associate director for environmental health and safety and fire marshal at the University of Utah, says that the Center for Campus Fire Safety is an invaluable information source and an advocate for campus fire chiefs like him. Utah, he says, has shown students an "incredibly powerful video" that the center produced about "what happens when their belongings go up in flames," and added slides and other materials prepared by the center into the university's own presentations. And Comeau's lobbying for sprinkler legislation and other measures has been "invaluable," says Halligan.

Although Comeau's center primarily works with colleges to help them inform their students, it is also beginning to embrace a watchdog role. It has teamed up with the Princeton Review to begin to survey colleges on their fire safety policies, and the resulting ratings are included in the company's guidebooks. And Comeau says the center is "getting a little more aggressive on taking campuses to task" when he thinks they don't do what they should to prevent calamities, or at least respond to them.

For instance, three students died in a fraternity fire at the University of Mississippi last August, and "since that time," Comeau says, "the university has unfortunately done nothing in terms of fire safety for students, and it hasn't cracked down on the fraternities and sororities at all."

Officials at Mississippi say that's not so. Chad McCracken, assistant dean of students, says university fire officials have intensified their inspections of the Greek houses -- which the university does not own or control, he notes -- and that it has worked with Comeau to develop an education campaign for students, focused on fraternity and sorority members. The program should be in place before the end of the semester, he says.

Comeau contrasts the situation at Mississippi with what he characterizes as model behavior by the University of Vermont, where a student died last year from carbon monoxide poisoning. Since then, he says, the university bought detectors for every room and undertook an education campaign for students. "They took one death and had an aggressive response," Comeau says.

"We try to encourage colleges and universities to use teachable moments. When incidents occur at their schools or at other schools, the attention is there."

And it may not, he notes, stay there for long.


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