On a day when the issue of fire safety on campus brought the crowd, almost no one at this Capitol Hill event could avoid talking about the most recent college disaster.
“We called this press conference to discuss fire safety, but in light of what occurred [Monday], we probably should be looking at safety, period,” said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio).
Thirty-three people are confirmed dead at Virginia Tech in what is widely regarded as the worst shooting spree in the country's history. While gun violence on campus is grabbing the headlines for now, off-campus blazes arguably pose a more persistent threat, and can be minimized with some concrete steps by students and campus officials.
More than 100 students have died in student housing fires since 2000, according to Campus Firewatch, a newsletter published by Ed Comeau, former director of The Center for Campus Fire Safety. This has been the deadliest fire year for students since the publication began tracking such data seven years ago. Nearly 1,800 fires burn in student residences each year, and nearly 80 percent of fire-related deaths involving colleges take place in off-campus housing, Comeau says.
Tubbs Jones, as she has done before, pledged support on Tuesday for bills that address campus fire safety and prevention. The proposed measures would give colleges financial incentives to install sprinklers and other preventive measures in dormitories and other buildings, change tax law to encourage donations that nonprofit groups (as opposed to merely colleges) can use to build or improve student housing, and again establish a campus fire safety month. (The first two bills have been previously introduced but have not passed.)
Comeau said colleges need to use events such as the Virginia Tech shooting as teachable moments, because as university officials and safety experts understand, heightened attention to safety issues rarely lasts.
“There’s so much attention paid for a brief period of time," he said. "The biggest thing we ask is that students be more aware. We aren’t asking them to be paranoid but to know things like a second way out of a building.”
Sheridan Gray, a senior at the University of Washington, said students there are most worried about external access to residence halls. “Once they are inside, students are comfortable amongst themselves. Most concerns I hear are about non-students coming in after hours.”
Washington dealt with its own gun-related violence earlier this month, when a man entered a class building and shot a woman with whom he had lived previously. Gray said that while the initial reaction from students was to ask questions about campus security, "people generally feel comfortable again and life moves on."
Larry Robertson, a former associate director for residence life at Virginia Tech, said that students at the Blacksburg, Va., campus didn't typically think about safety issues. At Longwood University, where he is director of residential and commuter life, one student and his friend died last month in an off-campus fire.
"We're not seeing a huge fear about fires," he said. "After a tragic event, students become more aware. But in general, students would never imagine that something like a fire or a shooting would happen to them. They think they are invincible."
Added Comeau: “No matter how many times I deal with cases of death, I’m always taken aback. The campus is considered a safe place. But that reality is shattered when these type of events happen.”