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Editorial: Wide awake about fire safety

As Amherst’s fire chief noted last week, the issue of fire safety is not high on the list of student concerns. “Their thought is, ‘It won’t happen to me,’” said Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson. But that isn’t so easy this week, after a tragedy at the Rolling Green apartment complex in which a University of Massachusetts student died.

Our winters see more fires in part because many New Englanders burn wood for heat. An electrical fire in Belchertown last weekend damaged a family’s home. Of course, home heating isn’t the only cause of fires. In just the past month, fires damaged a home on Leverett Road in Amherst, a restaurant on Bridge Street in South Hadley and a Chmura Road home in Hadley. In that fire, which was blamed on an electrical problem, residents were awakened, and perhaps saved, when smoke detectors went off.

At the University of Massachusetts, students are coached to think about the risk of fire. The school is rightly tough on students who disable dormitory smoke detectors. But the school can’t exert as much influence off-campus, in a place like Rolling Green. That Belchertown Road complex is where 21-year-old James F. Hoffman of Stoughton died Jan. 21. Two others who lived in the same apartment managed to escape. And so last week, the university turned to the grim business of helping the campus cope with the loss of one of their own, as the dean of students’ office also pitched in to assist students who lost their housing when fire spread through the 10-unit building.

Officials believe the fire started in the apartment where Hoffman lived. The cause hasn’t been determined. The investigation will seek to learn whether smoke detectors were functioning in the apartment.

That is a key question, because smoke detectors save lives.

Ed Comeau of Belchertown, a national expert in campus fire safety, argues that when students shop for housing off campus, they should look for places equipped not only with smoke detectors but with sprinkler systems. That may be a hard sell when so many students compete for a limited number of apartments and houses.

But Comeau, who publishes the newsletter Campus Firewatch, is right that students should consider fire safety in their choice of housing. To help advance this issue, his company created a 19-minute video, “9 Fires,” that profiles blazes in off-campus student housing in the United States in early 2012 and includes interviews with fire survivors and families of students hurt or killed.

It is a sobering tale that reinforces what’s at stake. Public education can prevent fires and help students and others avoid them. Comeau is hopeful an urgent message about fire safety will be aided by a bill expected to come before Congress next month. The Campus Fire Safety Education Act would allocate funding for fire-safety education on and off U.S. campuses.

For the time being, UMass and the town of Amherst continue to press well-designed efforts to impress on students the need to stay safe. A campus office that assists students who live off campus provides a fire safety checklist. UMass runs workshops and provides printed information for students who live off campus, but Lisa Queenin, the school’s director of community and regional legislative relations, acknowledges few students are willing to sit for such classes. The town of Amherst also helps make the safety argument. A flier it provides to rental tenants includes fire safety tips.

For students, life off campus can be attractive. But it is also more dangerous. While two-thirds of U.S. college students live off campus, that is where 86 percent of the 155 student fire fatalities have come since 2000, according to Comeau.

Students attend college to learn things that will help them make it in the world. They should also pay attention to facts about life-and-death choices about their housing.

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