Avoid Dorm Disaster – A Lesson on Fire Prevention in Student Housing

For the fifth time during the semester, a late-night popcorn craving sets off the fire alarm in the freshman dorm. As the groggy students stumble out of the building, some of them wonder why they bother getting out of bed. Frequent alarms can lead to them getting ignored, which is a recipe for disaster.

Midnight Snack to Raging Inferno

Every year, fire departments respond to thousands of student housing structure fires at colleges and universities. According to statistics published by the National Fire Protection Association, 87% of the fires are caused by cooking equipment and a majority occur during weekends.1 Some fires cause serious injuries and loss of life, impacting students, families, and campuses. Colleges and universities can take steps to improve safety and reduce the risk of student housing fires both on and off-campus.

Fan the Flames of Awareness

Fire safety begins with awareness. Each semester, actively communicate basic fire safety to students, including reminders about how to evacuate and the fire prevention policies that are in place for student housing. As new students descend on campus, make fire safety awareness part of their welcome and new-student orientation. Don’t forget about off-campus housing. Working with landlords can help spread the word about appropriate fire safety practices for students.

Policies Promote Safety

Educating students is a great first step to reducing the risk of fires. It is equally as important to have some basic policies in place for student housing. Consider adding the following to existing policies.

  • Regularly communicate basic fire safety to students living in campus housing. This includes how to evacuate student housing, the location of fire extinguishers, and what to do in case there is an electrical or grease fire.
  • Carefully consider whether to allow cooking equipment, like toasters and microwaves, in dorm rooms. These devices are common causes of cooking fires, but they can cause electrical fires by overloading electric circuits, too.
    • If you allow cooking in dorm rooms, they should be fitted with the appropriate fire defense devices such as fire extinguishers, fire suppression systems, hard-wired smoke detectors, and fire alarms.
    • The safest option is to limit cooking to designated areas outside dorm rooms (or dorm suites) – such as common areas or cafeterias.
  • Smoking and open flames are major culprits when it comes to student housing fires. Your policies should consider whether to allow candles or smoking in student housing. The National Fire Protection Association offers helpful tips at nfpa.org/campus.
  • Space heaters can overload circuits, causing electrical fires. If your college allows them in student housing, consider limiting their size and number per room to minimize power consumption.
  • Limit outdoor cooking to specific areas, providing guidance on the proper storage of cooking equipment and disposal of charcoal.  

Be Alarmed

To enhance safety, sleeping areas should be equipped with hardwired smoke detectors. This gives an early warning, providing students maximum time to escape. Ideally, student housing will also include a fire alarm system to alert the fire department as soon as possible. Additionally, exit and emergency lighting should be installed in hallways and stairwells. Make sure they are checked regularly so they can be repaired or replaced so they’re in top condition. Finally, sprinkler systems provide an added layer of protection against fire in student housing. If your dorm spaces don’t currently have a sprinkler system, consider budgeting for future retrofitting.

Additional Resources

There is a wealth of information available for campus fire prevention. Two great resources for education and tips include the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association.


1. National Fire Protection Association. Campus Housing. https://www.nfpa.org/campus  Accessed August 31, 2022.

Posted August 31, 2022.

The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.