Amherst fire victim UMass student James Hoffman
James "Jake" Hoffman died in the fire Monday at Rolling Green apartments.
Fire burns at a 10-unit building at Rolling Green Apartments at Amherst early Monday morning. University of Massachusetts student James E. Hoffman, 21, of Stoughton, died in the fire.
AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts student who died in a fire at Rolling Green at Amherst apartments early Monday morning has been identified as James F. “Jake” Hoffman, 21, of Stoughton.
The Northwestern district attorney’s office released Hoffman’s name late Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after a post on the Stoughton Fire Rescue Facebook page read: “Stoughton High School graduate and UMass Amherst student Jake Hoffman, 21, passed away yesterday morning in a fire at a condominium complex that he lived in while attending college. Jake leaves behind his parents David and Anne Hoffman, brother Riordan, and a sister Nichole.”
Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said he is still awaiting cause of the fire from state fire marshal’s office, though it doesn’t appear to be suspicious.
“What caused it right now is speculation,” Nelson said.
Prior to Monday’s fire, the last fatal blaze involving a UMass student occurred in April 2003, when a junior died inside her home on Sand Hill Road. Twelve years earlier, in February 1991, two male students lost their lives in a North Pleasant Street blaze.
Ed Comeau, publisher of the Belchertown-based Campus Firewatch, said that most college students who perish in fires do so at off-campus residences.
“There’s definitely a greater risk to living off-campus,” Comeau said.
Nationwide, he said, two-thirds of students live off-campus, but they make up 86 percent of fire fatalities that have occurred since 2000. During that span, there have been 155 fire-related deaths of students, with 133 occurring off campus, 10 in residence halls, 10 in Greek housing and two in what are described as other living arrangements.
During the 2011-12 academic year, the nine college students killed in fires all died as the result of fires at off-campus homes. So far in the current academic year, six more students have died in off-campus blazes, three since Jan. 1.
Last month, UMass finished installing sprinklers in all dorms, with officials observing there has never been a fire-related fatality on campus.
Comeau said dormitories tend to be better maintained, there are more stringent rules about smoking and lighting candles and incense, and better supervision and oversight.
“When you move off-campus, a lot of that goes away,” Comeau said.
Nelson said town and university officials are both interested in making sure all students are safe, no matter where they live.
“In conjunction with the UMass Environmental Heath and Safety, we’ve been a part of that education push,” Nelson said. “One of the last things kids will think about is fire safety. Their thought is, ‘it won’t happen to me.’”
Nelson said living off-campus is safe; students just need to remember to do it the right way.
“What we see a lot of is smoke detectors are disabled,” Nelson said, “That’s taking away your best and first line of defense.”
UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said fire safety is a prominent part of students’ orientation when they arrive as freshmen.
“They really get a lot of exposure to that. They certainly have a foundation of that information,” Blaguszewski said.
The challenge comes as they transition to off-campus dwellings. An off-campus student services office is trying to address fire safety issues. As part of finding an apartment and evaluating a lease, there is also a fire safety checklist.
Lisa Queenin, director of community and regional legislative relations for UMass, said workshops are put together for off-campus students and brochures are developed, but the difficulty is getting these students to face-to-face meetings.
The town created a flier titled “Living Off Campus in Amherst” that was distributed to all students living in rental properties in the community. The flier provides advice about how to be a good neighbor, as well fire safety tips, such as the risks of leaving upholstered furniture on decks and porches.
But many efforts to reduce risks associated with off-campus fires must involve parents.
“Parents and students need to be better educated about a fire-safe environment,” Comeau said.
He said they should be looking for housing with sprinklers.
“We encourage students to be educating themselves in picking a fire-safe place,” Comeau said.
Unfortunately, to find units that meet rent guidelines and are located on on a bus line, they may compromise.
Campus Firewatch has developed “9 Fires,” a 19-minute video about off-campus fires that occurred in January and February 2012, speaking to families and survivors. The video can be found at www.mingerfoundation.org/9-fires.
“We’re creating tools for schools to reach out with,” Comeau said.
Part of this education may also be supported through federal grant money. Comeau said Congress is expected to consider a Campus Fire Safety Act education bill next month that would provide money for, with that education for entire time a student in school, whether living on or off campus.