It was a tragic day for the Dupont Circle community in Washington, D.C., last month when Georgetown University graduate Nina Brekelmans perished in a fatal fire at her off-campus apartment. That marked one of four fatal off-campus fires at U.S. colleges in the 2014-2015 academic year. The others were in Bowling Green, Ky.; Mitchell, S.D.; and Reading, Pa.
Students attending U.S. colleges invest an average of $42,419 per year for private universities and $18,943 for public institutions. American university and college students and their families bank on a quality education, but less considered is the safety of the housing that students spend countless hours studying, sleeping and eating in.
Unfortunately many of the 21 million annual U.S. college students live in second-rate housing lacking fire sprinklers, smoke detectors and other critical fire safety technology. In youth, the excitement of having your own first place typically overshadows concern for its safety features.
Parents must speak up on children's behalf, advocating for higher education institutions to raise awareness for campus fire safety.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), firefighters across the nation respond to an average of 3,810 fires at college residence halls and Greek housing each year. The vast majority occur in off-campus housing.
Since 2000, there have been 170 campus-related fire fatalities, according to Campus Firewatch. College housing frequently has a higher tenant density, overloaded electrical sockets and overuse of extension cords and halogen lamps.
Only a few states mandate that higher education institutions inform students and parents about their fire safety efforts, such as whether or not college housing is equipped with automatic fire sprinkler systems.
To resolve that on a national level, U.S. Representative Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) has introduced the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act (H.R. 4675), which would require colleges to report the number and percentage of beds protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system.
The legislation comes after the New York State Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act passed in July 2013, named for Kerry Rose Fitzsimons, who in 2012 died in a fire at a Marist College off-campus house that lacked sprinklers. The act requires New York colleges to provide written information on fire safety and sprinkler systems to students residing in college-owned or operated housing.
Consequently, nearly 1.3 million students attending colleges and universities there are now making more informed housing decisions. It doesn't guarantee these systems are installed but it does generate increased transparency and awareness of the issue.
The increased use of petroleum-based synthetics in modern furniture is a large contributor to today's fires that burn hotter and faster, reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in just about three minutes compared to about 20 minutes just 25 years ago, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The data are clear: Every second counts.
Few people think they will ever become a victim of a home fire until after they or their family are a statistic. That's part of the reason why fire safety devices are rarely a priority checklist item when searching for a college apartment or house for kids to live in, despite their efficiency in reducing the chance of a fire fatality by 80 percent and property damage by 70 percent.
Young adults' lives still depend on parents to act as advocates with a loud, clear voice for safety. It's time that this issue is addressed not only as a political matter but also as an educational effort to the higher education institutions spending four or more years educating our nation's future leaders.
Patrick Dolan, Jr. is president of the 8,200-member Steamfitters Local Union 638 in New York. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.