Extinguishing the risk of student fires

Universities should use different methods of communication to reinforce key fire safety messages to students says Tilden Watson

Student fires have long been a major risk for universities, with unattended student cooking and late-night meals often cited as the key reason for such incidents. Unfortunately it is a risk that shows no sign of abating. 

Despite building notices, educational leaflets and other forms of safety control, fires in student accommodation persist year after year. Just last year, almost 100 students were forcibly rehomed after an unattended pan of oil ravaged a block of flats in Bristol. It is therefore vital that universities educate their students on the risk of fire throughout their time at university, on both the prevention and mitigation of fire.   

While eliminating the risk of fire entirely may be wishful thinking, educating students on the most common causes of fire will help to reduce the overall risk. 

Kitchen fires are a particular risk, especially in the early hours of the morning when students can be tempted to make hot food after a night out or in the midst of an essay crisis. Research shows that two-thirds of students have cooked food after midnight and half have done so while under the influence of alcohol. Not only does this increase risk of injury to those cooking and those around them, it also heightens the risk of extensive damage to property as well as disruption of studies should a fire break out.

Unattended incense sticks or smoking in student rooms – although prohibited – can also be a common cause of student fires. Just this month, Cambridge University students were evacuated from their student rooms after a student set fire to the room while burning incense sticks. 

Of course, guidance for new students is particularly important. However, universities should also share fire safety messages regularly throughout the term, using a variety of methods of communication to reinforce the key fire safety messages to all students.  

While eliminating the risk of fire entirely may be wishful thinking, educating students on the most common causes of fire will help to reduce the overall risk

The University of Sheffield, for example, has produced a video highlighting some of the main fire risks students face, and offering tips on how to minimise these risks. Other institutions, such as North Kent College, have invited local firefighters to carry out live chip pan fire demonstrations, to give students
a better understanding of the risks posed.

By being proactive in warning students about the risks they face, universities can ensure they are doing all they can to help their students avoid these situations.

However, educating students should form just one part of a university’s fire risk management strategy. This plan should encompass everything from
how buildings are designed and constructed to minimise the risk of fire spreading, to ensuring that buildings and equipment such as alarms and fire extinguishers are regularly maintained.

On top of this, it is also crucial that universities work with their insurance providers to keep their risk assessments under constant review. To ensure that a comprehensive fire strategy
has been put in place, a dedicated team of fire safety experts will spend time in the university to identify and plug any gaps in the safety strategy, and will know when to bring in specialist advice and assistance when needed.

Insurance providers can also provide invaluable assistance to universities should a fire break out, and will work with them from the outset to mitigate any damage to a university’s reputation and bottom line right through to the end of the reparation process.

Of course, it may never be possible to fully extinguish the fire risk in university accommodation. However, with student safety a priority, universities must ensure that guidance on fire safety is not kept in the background; instead, fire safety – both prevention and mitigation – should be reinforced regularly. 

Tilden Watson is Head of Education at Zurich Municipal

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